The combined House health care reform bill is coming in October, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday, but there are no hard deadlines for passage and policy specifics are far from settled.
"Clearly the form that reform takes is controversial and we need to give it a lot of thought," Hoyer told reporters at his weekly press briefing. "I expect us to move forward in the near future and have a bill ready for the floor certainly next month. That does not mean Thursday."
Though he did not rule out the possibility of a final floor vote before November, Hoyer said that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are in "lockstep" agreement that the House will have all the time it needs to bring a final bill to the floor.
What will be in the bill remains an open question, however. "The issue of what's going to be in or out is obviously in flux," Hoyer said. House leadership will be closely watching the public-option debate in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, he said. The finance committee is slated to vote Tuesday on amendments by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to add a public option to its health care bill, but the bill is not expected to include a public plan.
"The Senate is marking up its bill. It's going to have a very significant vote in its committee today on the public option," Hoyer said. "I tend to agree with Sen. Schumer that that's one of the toughest forums in which to consider that issue. The Senate floor may be better and the conference even better. But those decisions have not been made."
[UPDATE: At a Tuesday-afternoon press conference following a House leadership meeting, Pelosi and Hoyer reiterated the refusal to set hard deadlines for a bill, but were more bullish on the public option. Among the different factions of the Democratic Caucus, "The differences are not as great as you may think," Pelosi told reporters. She declined to clarify what version of the public option she expects to land in the consolidated House bill, however -- whether it would be tied to Medicare rates, as in the Ways and Means or Education and Labor committee bills, or whether it would look more like the weaker option passed by the Energy and Commerce Committee.]
Also undecided are proposals for a surtax on so-called "Cadillac" health insurance plans and requirements for electronic health records, Hoyer said. His only explicit commitments were to universal coverage, a general protection of Medicare, and a continuation of the ban on public funding for abortion services, a pet cause of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and other moderate Democrats.
Commitments are hard to come by at this point. After both House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-Louis.) claimed last week they agreed with 80 percent of the Democratic health care proposals -- the same percentage of "common ground" often cited by President Obama in appeals to bipartisanship -- Hoyer said he tried to reach out to both Republicans, with mixed results.
The meeting with Cantor hasn't happened, and while Hoyer called his sit-down with Boustany a "very good conversation," he came away convinced that there is less agreement than the paeans to Congressional unity suggest. "I think that '80 percent' was more rhetorical than it was real," Hoyer said.