Dem leaders defend timeline for healthcare, Sotomayor

Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday backed off only slightly on their legislative agenda, vowing to push ahead on healthcare reform and urging patience if a final vote isn’t possible before the August recess.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) all blamed Republican intransigence for the slowing pace of their agenda, suggesting the GOP is more interested in playing politics than crafting policy.

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Under pressure from President Obama to produce a post-conference healthcare bill by mid-October, House and Senate Democratic leaders have consistently predicted a final vote on their respective chambers' versions before the congressional recess that starts on Aug. 7. Under that schedule, conference negotiations would occur in September with a final vote in early to mid-October.

Asked Thursday about that schedule, Reid appeared to concede that healthcare, the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and the appropriations process may take more time. The majority leader denied he had set any arbitrary deadlines.

“I don’t know how much we’re going to get done, but we’ll get a lot done in light of the obstructionism,” Reid said. “We are hopefully going to move to a couple of appropriations bills before we leave here, we’re going to do Sotomayor for certain, and we have other things we need to do including movement on healthcare ... We have big things left to do with healthcare, but we’re not trying to ram things through.”

Reid said he was confident that the final healthcare package would have at least 60 votes, given that “four or five” Republicans on the Finance Committee have been helpful on healthcare reform, and assuming that Democrat Al Franken is eventually confirmed in the Minnesota Senate race.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is acting as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in the absence of chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), also denied Thursday that the schedule for a final healthcare vote could slip into September. Dodd noted that Democratic leaders earlier this year did not foresee the confirmation hearings of Sotomayor.

“You’ve got to set an agenda, and there’s always elements like Sotomayor,” Dodd said. “We’ve got to deal with that. It wasn’t anticipated when the agenda was first set. I think we’ll be OK. It may slip a little bit, but we’ll stay on track.”

Durbin gave a flat “no” when asked if there was any possibility that Sotomayor’s final confirmation vote could slip into September.

Asked Thursday about strengthening federal regulation of oil-price speculation in case gas prices spike this summer, Reid also blamed Republican opposition for the Senate's past failures to pass such regulation and indicated the chamber may soon try again.

"Of course they're being manipulated," Reid said of oil prices. "We can see that with what's happening in the marketplace today. We have huge inventories of gasoline, and we have people out there betting on what the price is going to be on it. We ought to take a look at it." 

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