Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday that he is backing off deadlines as a way to get results from recalcitrant health care negotiators.
"I had a meeting last Monday with a number of consultants. They all said, 'Get off this exact date. The American people don't care about exact dates. All they want is something to get done.' So I listened to them," Reid told a handful of reporters after a press briefing.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), however, wants to keep the pressure on. "I didn't hear that," he said, when asked if Reid was backing off a Sept. 15th deadline for the Finance Committee to come to a bipartisan deal.
What'll happen if there's no deal by mid-September?
"We'll wait and see what happens," said Durbin.
"I don't think we've set deadlines," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Reid added, however, that he still wanted the final bill completed by the end of the year.
The full Senate Democratic caucus huddled Thursday afternoon following a critical meeting between the so-called Gang of Six and President Obama.
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, one of the three Democratic gang members, said that Obama put pressure on the bipartisan group to come to an agreement.
"Well, you know, he is doing what you'd expect him to do: keep the pressure on to get a result. But he understands the most important thing is we get it right," Conrad, the Budget Committee chairman, told reporters on his way into the caucus gathering.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, which is the only one of five panels between the House and Senate not to report a bill, said that part of the meeting included discussion of Democratic-only alternatives. Three finance Republicans are part of the Gang of Six, but just how serious they are about voting for the final package is in doubt.
Baucus and the president discussed options for moving a Democratic-only bill, but Baucus said that he still prefers GOP involvement.
If that's not possible, he said, he's willing to reevaluate the strategy. "Essentially, major questions are going to be addressed... sometime after we get back and take stock of where we are. The hope is that we'll all be together. Face reality: it is possible that we may not be. Anything's possible in this business. And if not, then we'll reassess and take stock again and see what makes the most sense," he said.
Conrad declined to characterize Obama's message in detail or say whether the president pressed the foot-dragging lawmakers on a mid-Sept. deadline for an agreement.
"Keep working. That was his message. And how important this is for the country," Conrad said, adding that the group told Obama "that we're making steady progress but it's hard."
"I think most people recognize that what's important is to get this right," Conrad said. "It wasn't about any deadlines."
On Wednesday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a finance Democrat, said he doubted the Republicans would be there in the end. Durbin, however, said he still holds out hope.
"Maybe I'm optimistic, but they've taken a lot of grief to date. I think most of them would like to see it through if they can vote for something in good conscience," he said.
But as town halls across the country erupt with outrage manufactured and organized by GOP and health insurance-industry groups, the prospect for cooperation dims. The more the rage flares, the more difficult it will be for GOP senators to vote for a health care bill that its base despises.
One Democratic congressman has received death threats, another was burned in effigy, a third had to be escorted from a rowdy meeting.
Democrats have emphasized that the protests are being manufactured. Rather than representing the grassroots, they're "Astroturf" actions -- fake grassroots. Reid entered Thursday's press briefing carrying a piece of Astroturf to make his point, adding that the letters and e-mails his offices are getting are all form letters.
Reid approvingly noted a media report that the GOP is "imploding," as evidenced by the influence of talk show hosts, the high number of its base voters who think Obama was born in Africa - conspiracy theorists known as "birthers" -- and is therefore an illegitimate president, as well as the shouting at the town halls.
For Reid, the GOP is committing political suicide by aligning itself with its extreme wing.
"They've got to come back into the mainstream," Reid said. "It's not often that you try to blow yourself up, but that's what they're trying to do with this vexatious stuff they're doing at these meetings, the birthers, and a party being run by talk show hosts."
Jeff Muskus contributed reporting