Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made it official Thursday, telling reporters that his chamber will miss President Obama's August-recess deadline.
"What we're going to do is come back in the fall," Reid told reporters. "All this is no big surprise to anyone. The president's message was [that] he wanted something sent to him before the end of the year," he said, emphasizing the word "year."
"It's better to get a product that's based on quality and thoughtfulness than on trying to just get something through," Reid said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to put the best face on the slowdown: "No one wants delay, but I think the president has done this just right. He keeps importuning us and moving us and pushing us forward, but not to the extent that you don't have the best product possible."
Health care reform will now need to survive the month of August, when opponents will work hard to kill it. "It's going to be out there certainly for a significant amount of time while the public reacts and maybe the plan is modified," said Schumer, who nevertheless expressed confidence that the Senate would finish the job in the fall.
The August deadline had always been a stiff challenge for the glacial Senate, but was made tougher by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who insisted on trying to win a handful of GOP votes. He has been meeting for weeks with a small bipartisan group he dubs the "coalition of the willing." The meetings angered some committee Democrats and have yet to lead to a breakthrough.
The announcement of the delay has been accompanied by a rise in tensions in both chambers. A meeting of Finance Committee Democrats Thursday morning became heated, aides said. When a reporter asked Democratic leaders about the testy meeting, Schumer shook his head, brushing off the suggestion. Reid, however, acknowledged the tensions and said they are a natural part of negotiations.
The committee's talks remain fragile, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) told reporters Thursday afternoon. "It doesn't take but a couple of Republicans or Democrats to torpedo whatever plan we have," he said, adding that the Republican members of Baucus's coalition -- Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- are under "enormous pressure" from the right to abandon negotiations.
On the House side, a Democratic leadership meeting became contentious as well. Pelosi, however, struck a note of confidence at her weekly press conference.
"I'm more confident than ever. When we work out some of the differences that we have, it'll be very apparent to everyone else," Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. "The momentum is there. When the bill is ready, we'll go to the floor, and we will win."
Reid said he had listened to the requests from senior Republicans working with Baucus to allow more time for a compromise to emerge.
"The decision was made to give them more time and I don't think it's unreasonable," he said.
The House health care bill has been on hold while Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) negotiates with conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, the last committee that must pass the bill on before a full vote on the floor. Waxman said Wednesday night that he hoped to resolve their differences and resume the committee's markup process Thursday.
Blue Dog leaders said not to bet on that. But Pelosi brushed aside their comments. "The fact is, I stand by my statement," she said. "I'm not addressing anybody else's."
Pelosi said momentum for the bill's passage continues to grow, referring to 130 "major national organizations" that have committed their support. Nineteen of those groups signed a letter to the speaker and House chairmen Waxman, Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) urging them to avoid making concessions to the Blue Dogs.
The White House remains actively involved in negotiations. Nancy Ann DeParle, who heads Obama's Office of Health Care Reform, joined Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Thursday's lunch meeting of Senate Democrats. "I think there's recognition that this isn't about trying to beat the clock, but there's an urgency to health reform," Sebelius said at a press conference following the meeting.
Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ducked into Pelosi's office accompanied by key Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Obama himself pushed his Democratic colleagues Thursday afternoon to keep working. "[W]e just heard today that, well, we may not be able to get the bill out of the Senate by the end of August or the beginning of August. That's okay. I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working. I want the bill to get out of the committees, and then I want that bill to go to the floor, and then I want that bill to be reconciled between the House and the Senate, and then I want to sign a bill. And I want it done by the end of this year. I want it done by the fall," he said at a health care town hall in Cleveland.
"Whenever I hear people say it's happening too soon, I think that's a little odd. We've been talking about health care reform since the days of Harry Truman. How could it be too soon? I don't think it's too soon for the families who have seen their premiums rise faster than wages year after year. It's not too soon for the businesses forced to drop coverage or shed workers. It's not too soon for taxpayers asked to close widening deficits, costs that threaten to leave our children with a mountain of debt. Reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington, but not too soon enough for the American people. We can get this done. We don't shirk from a challenge. We can get this done."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting
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