Senate Democrat: Republican healthcare votes needed

WASHINGTON Sun Jul 26, 2009 12:31pm EDT

1 of 2. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during a town hall meeting on health care at Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland, Ohio, July 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats do not have the votes to pass healthcare reform without Republican support, a key Democrat said on Sunday, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he is confident a bill will pass by year's end.

Democrat Kent Conrad, a key player in bipartisan Senate Finance Committee negotiations on healthcare, refused to predict whether the panel will be able to produce a bill before the Senate breaks for a month long recess on August 7.

"There are not the votes for Democrats to do this just on our side of the aisle. It is not possible and perhaps not desirable either," Conrad said on ABC's "This Week."

"We're going to finish when we're finished. We're going to do everything we can to get it right," he said. "We'll be ready when we're ready."

President Barack Obama's drive for healthcare reform has stalled in the Senate and the House of Representatives, both controlled by his fellow Democrats, amid criticism from all sides about the cost, scope and funding of the more than $1 trillion effort.

The measure has been imperiled in the House by disputes among Democrats about reining in costs, while Republicans in both chambers have slammed the measures as an expensive first step toward a government takeover of healthcare.

Democratic leaders in the 100-member Senate, where the party has a commanding majority of 60 votes, acknowledge they cannot meet Obama's deadline to pass an initial version of the measure before the summer break. The deadline appears in serious danger in the House as well.

Gibbs told Fox News Sunday, however, the key test on the legislation was whether it was making progress. He said he thought it was.

'ON THE ROAD'

"We think we're on the road to get comprehensive health care by the fall," Gibbs said. "We've got about 80 percent agreement, we're still working on that last 20 percent."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeated her prediction that a healthcare measure ultimately will pass but did not guess how long that will take.

"When I take this bill to the floor, it will win," she told CNN's "State of the Union" program. "This will happen."

Obama has described the healthcare measure, his top domestic priority, as crucial to long-term U.S. economic stability. The measure would rein in costs, provide competition for insurance companies with some type of public insurance option and cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans.

Obama pushed for early passage in hopes of keeping the opposition from organizing during the August break. Republicans say the bill will drive up government debt.

"He's out of control," Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who stirred controversy recently when he said healthcare would be Obama's "Waterloo," said on ABC.

"We could have a plan in a few weeks if the goal is not a government takeover," he said. "We don't need the government to take this over."

Three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have been involved in lengthy closed-door negotiating sessions to produce a bilateral agreement. But as the sessions have dragged on, other lawmakers have become impatient.

With 60 Senate members, Democrats have enough votes to break any Republican attempt to block the healthcare bill through procedural maneuvers.

But if one or two Democrats oppose the measure, Republicans including Charles Grassley, Olympia Snowe and Mike Enzi, who have been involved in the Finance panel's negotiations, could become crucial.

"We're probably going to get a better product if we go through the tough business of debate, consideration and analysis of what we're proposing," Conrad said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose drive for healthcare reform failed in 1994 when she was first lady, said she thought there would be a more positive outcome for the effort this time around.

"I think the time has come. I think this president is committed to it. I think the leadership in Congress understands we have to do something, and I think we'll get it done," she told NBC's "Meet the Press" television program.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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