WASHINGTON — Slow down, Senate Democrats told President Barack Obama on Thursday, dashing hopes of rushing his sweeping health care overhaul to a summertime vote and adding to the troubles the plan could face as the year wears on.
"That's OK," the president replied gamely. "Just keep working."
No one is suggesting that delay equals defeat. But Obama has been pushing hard for quick passage of legislation he can sign to expand coverage to all Americans and control ruinous medical costs. And he's counting on fast action while his first-year popularity holds.
Republican foes have stepped up their attacks in hopes of weakening if not killing the historic changes in the way America provides and pays for health care. But they're not the source of the immediate problem. Divisions within the ranks of Obama's fellow Democrats have stalled the legislation.
While confirming there will be no Senate vote before Congress goes home in early August, the chamber's Democratic leaders spoke optimistically of wrapping up a bipartisan bill in the next two weeks.
That offered no reassurance to Democrats in the House, many of whom are reluctant to vote on a $540-billion tax increase to help pay for the overhaul unless senators also stick their necks out before an election year. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, called for canceling the August recess if a bill isn't passed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested that slowing things down may be the wise course for now. Reid said the Senate Finance Committee will act on its portion of the bill before lawmakers' monthlong break after the first week of August. He then will oversee how that bill is merged with separate legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this month.
Reid said the decision to delay was made Wednesday night in the hopes of getting a final bill that can win at least 60 votes in the Senate. He said he listened to requests from senior Republicans working with Baucus to allow more time for a compromise to emerge.