Deadline push dropped after health momentum fizzles

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill abandoned their August deadline for a vote on healthcare reform Thursday after President Obama’s primetime press briefing the night before failed to give their massive agenda item renewed momentum.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dropped her position that the public wants lawmakers to work into the August recess to finish the bill, and brushed off the concerns of many Democrats that leaving town would give the bill’s opponents more time to rally opposition.

“I’m not afraid of August,” Pelosi said. “It’s a month.”

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On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pinned the delay on the GOP, saying, “The Republicans have asked for more time, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable.” He said Senate Democrats decided Wednesday night not to hold a vote before September.

Pelosi said there are enough votes to pass the House bill and splits in her caucus can be closed by the end of the week. A Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said members have been told to be ready for a Saturday session, indicating that leaders are still trying to make the deadline.

Liberals demanding a vote next week dominated a caucus meeting Thursday that House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) deemed the “longest” and “most contentious” of his time as whip.

He led the liberal charge to keep the House in session until it passes a healthcare bill, saying recess should be “postponed, if not canceled” to get the legislation done.

Clyburn said, “If we leave here without doing this, nobody is going to interpret it as we’re going home to listen. They’ll say we went on vacation without having done it.”

Few party centrists attended the morning caucus meeting. But the seven Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee who hold the fate of the bill in their hands negotiated for three hours with Pelosi, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel without resolution.

“I like to think we’re making progress, and the talks are continuing, and that’s a good thing,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dogs’s leader on healthcare.

Pelosi’s stance on adjournment is a reversal from Wednesday, when she said the public would want lawmakers to work into their recess to pass a bill. Her fellow liberals worry that failing to pass legislation before recess could make it harder to pass both healthcare reform and other agenda items later.

House Democrats, in the faint hopes of getting a vote before August recess, indicated they are considering bypassing the Energy and Commerce Committee altogether, where the bill has stalled, and proceeding right to the floor.

“The preferable course would be to go through the committee,” Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said Thursday night. “But all options will be on the table.”

Obama tried to stay positive. Speaking to a crowd in Shaker Heights, Ohio, he said, “We just heard today that we may not be able to get the bill out of the Senate by the end of August or the beginning of August. That’s OK. I just want people to keep on working. Just keep on working.”

The delay would not prevent him signing a healthcare bill “by the end of this year,” he said, adding, “I want it done by this fall.”

But the decision to break the August deadline is a sign that Obama’s policy-heavy appeal to the nation Wednesday night failed to provide the extra boost needed to get the bills passed quickly.

Obama’s job approval rating has slid from the 60s to the 50s as the healthcare debate moved from broad ideas to specific proposals. And the number of people who disagree with the way he’s doing his job has shot from 28 percent in April to 43 percent this month, according to polls.

That emboldens Republicans and leaves vulnerable Democrats with less political cover to take tough votes.

Pelosi called Obama’s detailed defense of his healthcare plan an eloquent “tour de force.”

But aside from backing Pelosi’s suggestion to adjust the surtax so its impact would be felt only by families making more than $1 million, Obama offered no new proposals to change the dynamic of the debate.

One GOP aide said: “The president’s decision to go on television and repeat the same debunked talking points for the umpteenth time certainly didn’t help.”

Rather than boosting momentum behind healthcare, the presidential press conference distracted attention from healthcare because of Obama’s comment that police in Cambridge, Mass. acted “stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor in his home after a neighbor reported a burglary. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs labored to explain that the president wasn’t calling the officer stupid.

In the Senate, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said that even though there won’t be a floor vote until September, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee should keep working with the Senate Finance Committee on drafting a bill.

“That doesn’t excuse, obviously, our committees from doing everything we can over the remaining weeks here before the August break, as well as during that August break, to try and meld our ideas and bills together,” said Dodd, who is in charge of the HELP Committee in the absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Reid and other Senate leaders had hoped to get a bill out of the Finance Committee, merge it with legislation approved by the HELP Committee and get that combined bill to the Senate floor by the recess date.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Reid are scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Friday.

House liberals, sensing that some of their priorities, if not the whole bill, might be in jeopardy, sought to exert some pressure to counter the Blue Dogs.

Blue Dog clout is starting to worry party liberals, who fear Pelosi or Obama may move the bill to the right to bring the fiscal conservatives on board.

“We don’t think any one group in our caucus ought to be able to derail this,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “When we hear ‘squeezing savings out of the system,’ we’re concerned that programs will be taken out that are the most critical to our communities.”

Liberals on the Energy and Commerce Committee, all but ignored amid the Blue Dog negotiations, held their own news conference to rally for an additional amendment package to carve $190 billion in pharmaceutical savings out of the bill and stated a clear preference for finishing on schedule.

“We want to get this done now,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said.

Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.