New focus as Democrats sense that healthcare clock may be ticking fast

Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are gripped with a renewed sense of urgency in their effort to pass healthcare reform.

As the Finance Committee continued into the second week of marking up its bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) surprised colleagues on Wednesday by canceling a weeklong Columbus Day recess.

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Reid’s move came after White House officials publicly called on lawmakers to pass a final bill by Thanksgiving. This ambitious timetable is more than a month before the goal set by congressional leaders, which is to pass a bill by the end of the year.

Obama administration officials tout the progress that has been made on healthcare reform, but as the debate heads into October, neither chamber has passed a bill. Some Democrats are privately concerned that the calendar is slipping away from them, noting that finishing healthcare reform in the election year of 2010 would be nearly impossible.

In May, Obama stressed the need to act soon, saying, “If we don’t get it done this year, we’re not going to get it done.”

Obama set a deadline of early August for the Senate and House to pass their versions of healthcare legislation. But two months later, the Senate Finance Committee is still slogging through hundreds of amendments, some of which have taken hours to debate.

Action in the House has stalled as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is struggling to merge three committee-passed healthcare bills. Pelosi has signaled that the House health measure will have a strong public option, but it remains unclear if she has the votes to pass such a bill.

Senior Obama lieutenants, including Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, have all said recently they think Congress can get a bill to the president before the end of the Thanksgiving break.

The comments suggest the White House is trying to light a fire under congressional negotiators, but it doesn’t appear to be working.

Democratic leaders, who remember the spate of negative press when they missed Obama’s August deadline, have resisted efforts to pin them to any new timeline.

“I have learned over this healthcare debate that I’m not going to set any arbitrary deadlines,” Reid told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said, “I’ve never been a devotee of deadlines. I don’t think they’re useful, and I don’t think you can predict very accurately when things get done,  ... Especially with the complexity of this.”

Losing patience with the Finance Committee, some Senate Democrats have already moved ahead to endgame talks on healthcare, anticipating that Reid could put a package on the floor in two weeks.

Reid has often threatened to postpone or cancel recesses but has rarely followed through. His decision to keep the Senate in session for the week of Columbus Day is a clear indication that Democrats are anxious.

“We’ve got to get this done!” Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said on Wednesday.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, who is at the center of healthcare talks, has suggested using the legislation his panel passed in July as the base legislation for healthcare reform and adding portions of the Finance Committee bill as amendments during floor consideration.

Reid said he hoped the Finance panel would wrap up its work in the next few days and that he would work with the committee chairman and White House officials to get to the bill on the floor quickly.

“I’ll need a few days to work with the chairman, as I’ve indicated, and the White House to come up with a bill. Then we have to have a scoring from [the Congressional Budget Office].”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has offered a similarly vague outlook.

“There is no deadline,” Hoyer said. “We will vote on this when it is ready.”

Despite their refusal to set firm deadlines in public, Senate Democrats are well into endgame discussions about the floor bill will look like.

Several liberal Democratic senators said they have already discussed with Reid the importance of including a government-run health insurance plan in the final Senate bill. Colleagues have also discussed with Reid the process for considering amendments and how much weight should be given to provisions drafted by the Finance panel.

Liberals argue that the Finance Committee bill should be given less weight because it was largely drafted during negotiations with two Republicans, Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), who do not plan to vote for it.

Reid is under heavy pressure from liberals and labor unions to include the so-called public option in the bill he brings to the floor.

“If it’s not in the bill that goes to the floor, getting 60 votes on an amendment to include the public option is going to be very hard,” said a person who has lobbied Reid. “There’s a lot of pressure on him.”

“I support a public option, and time will determine what’s in the bill,” Reid said on Wednesday.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Reid has decided that the package merged from bills passed by the HELP and Finance committees would not include a public option so as to make it more attractive to swing votes such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

A senior Democratic aide, however, disputed that the issue has been resolved: “He has not made a final decision yet.”

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Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he would offer an amendment on the floor with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that would require health insurance companies to spend 85 to 95 percent of federal subsidies on healthcare services, a proposal designed to limit their profits.

Others have begun to focus on floor procedure and whether it will be necessary to use budget reconciliation, a procedural maneuver that would let Democrats pass reform by a simple majority.

“We’re all aware of what we’ve got to do to get to the endgame,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the HELP Committee.

Harkin estimated that Senate floor debate could take three weeks. He predicted Democrats would get 60 votes to proceed to the bill but was not sure if they would muster enough support to end debate and move to a final vote. He said reconciliation would be the fallback plan.

Harkin expressed surprise when told of reports that Reid is planning to exclude the public option from the base bill. He raced into the Senate Democrats’ weekly lunch meeting, vowing to look into the matter.

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.