Published July 24, 2009
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is likening overhaul of the nation's health care system to one of the government's greatest triumphs: the NASA program that landed astronauts on the moon 40 years ago.
If Obama's initiative is to be anywhere near as successful, it will be by small steps taken in a divided Congress right now. No giant leaps are in sight.
Senate Democrats on Thursday demonstrated the challenges anew, formally killing off plans to vote on a health bill before Congress goes on its August recess. That broke a deadline Obama had set.
"People keep on saying, 'Wow, this is really hard. Why are you taking it on?' You know, America doesn't shirk from a challenge," Obama said during a town hall meeting in Ohio.
Referencing President John F. Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon, Obama said, "There were times where people said, 'Oh, this is foolish, this is impossible."'
Now may be one of those times in Obama's young presidency.
But the president played down the announcement from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that action on the Senate floor would be delayed until September at the earliest.
"That's OK," the president said. "I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working."
Obama envisions legislation that would, for the first time, require all Americans to be insured. A new government insurance program would compete with private insurers, and insurance companies would be barred from excluding people with pre-existing conditions. The goals are to hold down costs and extend coverage to most of the 50 million uninsured. The price tag: $1 trillion-plus over a decade.
Obama planned to meet in the Oval Office on Friday with Reid and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is leading a group of a half-dozen Democratic and Republican senators laboring to produce a bipartisan bill.
Even while announcing the Senate vote would be delayed, Reid said the Finance Committee would act on its portion of the bill before lawmakers' monthlong break after the first week of August.
It can't be fast enough for some of the Senate's more liberal Democrats, who are chafing over the repeated delays by the Finance Committee and grousing that they can't be expected to support whatever legislation the committee produces.
Finance Committee negotiators are looking at a bill that would not go far enough for some Democrats in embracing some liberal goals, like the new public insurance plan, that were included in legislation passed by the Senate's health committee. Finance Committee members are looking at nonprofit co-ops instead. The two measures would have to be merged.
"The Finance Committee keeps dragging their feet and dragging their feet and dragging their feet. It's time for them to fish or cut bait," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the health committee, said in a conference call with Iowa reporters. "The people of America voted for Barack Obama last year to lead this country and make changes."
Divisions among Democrats in the House are threatening the schedule there, too. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has postponed work on the legislation since Monday while he negotiates with seven Democrats who are members of a group of fiscal conservatives called the Blue Dogs.
The group, which wants more cost-cutting in the House bill that has already passed two other committees, spent hours Thursday meeting with Waxman, House Democratic leaders and White House officials including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. At the end of the day, one of the Blue Dogs, Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., said that he'd heard some encouraging ideas, though he declined to give details.
House Democrats from various parts of the country are also asking for changes to address regional discrepancies in Medicare reimbursement rates. Democratic leaders met into the night Thursday with a group of them.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed confidence in the ultimate outcome. "We will take the bill to the floor when it is ready, and when it is ready, we will have the votes to pass it," she said.
Pelosi spoke after a contentious leadership meeting where Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, called for canceling the August recess if a bill isn't passed. Pelosi didn't rule that out.
"I'm not afraid of August," she said. "It's a month."
Democratic leaders say it's all part of the legislative process, but Republicans are latching on to the disarray in delight. The Republican National Committee has taken to issuing news releases headlined "Chaos" that highlight disagreements within the Democrats' ranks.