President Barack Obama's drive for US healthcare reform suffered another setback on Thursday when Senate Finance Committee leaders said the panel would not vote on a compromise plan before senators leave for a month-long August recess next week.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus said there had not been sufficient progress to complete the healthcare bill by the end of next week but talks between three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel would continue.
“It is clear there will not be a markup next week,” Baucus told reporters after another in a long series of closed-door sessions between the committee's six negotiators.
With polls showing public support for Obama's healthcare reform plans waning, the Senate delay was another dose of bad news for his hopes to gain approval for a bill that will lower healthcare costs and expand coverage to the uninsured.
“The bill is not ready for prime time,” Republican Senator Michael Enzi, one of the party's three negotiators, told reporters.
The delay could increase pressure on Baucus and Senate Democratic leaders to jettison the bipartisan talks and move forward without Republican support.
“We are committed to finding a bipartisan solution as expeditiously as possible,” Baucus said after acknowledging there would not be a panel vote until September.
Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the panel, told reporters: “We have not been committed to deadlines, we are committed to getting the job done.”
In the House of Representatives, the Energy and Commerce Committee -- the last of three House panels to vote on healthcare reform -- began debate after striking a deal with conservative Democrats.
The panel spent much of Thursday wading through dozens of amendments to the measure. Final approval could come Friday.
“There's plenty of common ground as we go forward on this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “At the end of the day we have to have universal, quality affordable healthcare for all Americans. And we will do that.”
The healthcare overhaul, Obama's top legislative priority in his first year, has been besieged by criticism about its cost and scope. Obama has stepped up his lobbying for passage of a measure to rein in costs, improve care and cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans.
But as congressional discussions drag on, more Americans are voicing doubt over the reform plan, with many worried that a costly overhaul could reduce the quality of their care and limit choices of doctors.
A New York Times/CBS News poll showed 69% of Americans were concerned their care would suffer if they were on a government-run plan.
And a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 42% of those surveyed in July thought Obama's healthcare plan was a bad idea, up from 32% in June.
“Right now we're focused on moving this process forward,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. “There's a lot of twists and turns left in all of this. We're trying to get the process going.”
The White House and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Congress had hoped the final committees considering the measure in each chamber -- the House Energy and Senate Finance panels -- could complete deliberations before the August recess.
Among the amendments passed by the House panel was a provision that there would be no waiting period for insurance coverage under the federal Children's Health Insurance Program if a child under age 2 loses health coverage through a group plan or a parent's employer.
Another amendment prohibits the use of comparative research on the effectiveness of treatments to deny or ration care.
In the Senate, the Finance Committee negotiations have focused on a plan that would use non-profit cooperatives to compete with private insurers to help drive down costs.
A government-run insurance program, favored by Obama and many of his fellow Democrats but resisted by Republicans and the insurance industry, would not pass the Senate, Democrat Kent Conrad, one of the panel negotiators, told the NPR radio network.
But a coalition of liberal House Democrats said it would oppose any final version of a House bill that did not include a “robust” public insurance option.
The White House did not comment on whether it would support a bill without a public option but said any measure would have to increase competition for insurers.
“The president is not interested in and doesn't believe we'll have healthcare reform unless we have elements that provide ample choice and competition for people that are in an insurance market,” Gibbs said.
Pelosi said the insurance industry, which has spent millions lobbying Congress over the issue, were villains in the debate. “It's almost immoral what they are doing,” she told reporters. “They are the villains. They have been part of the problem in a major way.” (Reuters)