A bipartisan group of centrist and conservative senators sent a letter to the Democratic and Republican leaders on Friday urging delay in consideration of health care reform.
The letter, obtained by the Huffington Post, was drafted by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and is also signed by Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.). Independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats, signed on, as did Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- moderates heavily courted by President Obama.
The organized effort to slow down the process is a blow to the reform effort. Obama has pushed hard for a final vote before the August recess, arguing that delaying until September could slow momentum and risk missing a historic opportunity.
The letter, sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stresses that while the senators still want health care reform done this year, they don't feel comfortable voting for it until they've had more time to study its costs and benefits.
Reid had said on Thursday that senators always want more time, no matter when a vote comes.
Any of those individual senators calling for delay by themselves would be a surmountable obstacle; but together, they make a formidable force and throw the possibility of an August vote in serious doubt.
"If we fail to act, and act now, working families will continue to see their premiums skyrocket, their benefits will erode even further, the number of uninsured will keep exploding and the deficit will grow uncontrollably," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, in response to the news of the letter.
Jake Thompson, Nelson's spokesman, said the message of the letter is to show support for the reform effort, not oppose it. "Sen. Nelson is firmly committed to comprehensive health reform this year and wants to take the time to get this historic legislation right," Thompson said.
The gang of senators say in their letter that the testimony of the Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf on Thursday persuaded them that delay is needed. At that time, Elmendorf said that the current health care plans under consideration would not considerably reduce costs and would add to the debt burden, an analysis that omits cost savings from prevention or negotiating lower prices.
But the timeline doesn't add up. Reid told the Huffington Post on Thursday that he had spoken to Nelson Wednesday night and Nelson told him he would be sending him a letter. The conversation took place before the budget director's testimony. Elmendorf's remarks, however, may have persuaded uncertain senators to sign on to the letter.
"We appreciate the work that has been done by senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and Finance committees, but in view of the Budget Director's statement, there is much heavy lifting ahead," write the senators in their letter.
The CBO analysis is is a "devastating blow" to the bill, Nelson said Friday on CNN radio. He also spoke derisively of the House health care reform effort, which taxes the wealthy to subsidize coverage, calling it "class warfare."
UPDATE: Opponents of health care reform are using the stall tactic as a means to kill it. Ben Smith has details of a conservative strategy call from Friday morning in which they lay out just that strategy:
"I can almost guarantee you this thing won't pass before August, and if we can hold it back until we go home for a month's break in August," members of Congress will hear from "outraged" constituents, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint said on the call, which was organized by the group Conservatives for Patients Rights.
"Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people," DeMint predicted, adding that "this health care issue Is D-Day for freedom in America."
"If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," he said.