Senate Democrats said yesterday that they hope to have a draft of a health care bill ready by the end of next week, the first step in what is bound to be an arduous path through Congress.
"We had a really productive meeting today," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland on her way from the Senate floor to a Democratic caucus meeting. "The president says he wants to get it done. What I would add... is get it done right, because we'll only get a chance to do it once."
Although some Democrats still held out hope that they might release a bill by tomorrow, Mikulski said that she considers next week more likely.
Then the real work -- dragging Republicans and so-called "centrist" Democrats along for the ride -- will begin.
Before the process of legislative compromise begins, however, Sen. Chris Dodd of Conneticut said committee Democrats still want to hear from other corners. Dodd said he intends to spend a day or two in less formal meetings with stakeholders and other experts to solicit a broader range of opinions before the committee markup process officially begins June 16.
Once that is accomplished, Dodd said, the race is on and members of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will need to work hard.
"I've informed the members of our committee that I intend to start on a Monday, in the morning, and go right through the week and into the evening if necessary," said Dodd, who estimated that markup would take up to two weeks. "If we're going to be here Tuesday through Thursday, we're not going to get this done," he said, laughing.
In anticipation of an even greater fight once the bill is out of committee, Dodd said he has asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for a similar five-day work schedule in the full Senate during July "and into August if we have to."
Like Mikulski, Dodd clearly expects a fight, but he is optimistic about the prospect of achieving bipartisan consensus. Long meetings with the committee's ranking Republican member, Wyoming Sen. Michael Enzi, have focused on cutting spiraling health care costs, he said.
And what of the public option, which insurance companies and Republicans continue to say is a dealbreaker? That's one of several "troublesome" points, Dodd said, but most Democrats favor one of the four or five public-option proposals that Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) presented Wednesday. The differences between those various proposals are still a question mark at this point, however. Dodd declined to comment on specifics and Bingaman's office said the New Mexico senator is uncomfortable divulging too many details.
For now, committee Democrats must prepare for the health care battle without their chairman, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who is unlikely to return to the Capitol before the release of a preliminary bill next week.
In the meantime, Dodd, the committee's next most-senior Democrat, stressed that his role is more an organizer of meetings, than a replacement for Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer. Kennedy's staff keeps him informed on a daily basis, Dodd said. In addition, both Obama and Dodd updated the Massachusetts senator Tuesday.
"He's fighting hard. It's tough," Dodd said Wednesday night. "But he's doing okay. It's tough."