Senate delays threaten U.S. healthcare deadline

Tue Nov 3, 2009 5:36pm EST


* Reid says Senate not bound by timelines

* House vote could come by middle of next week

* House Republicans offer healthcare alternative

(Adds Reid, Senate details)

By Donna Smith and John Whitesides

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid left open the possibility on Tuesday that work on a healthcare overhaul bill could drift into next year, as the House of Representatives pushed to take it up later this week.

"We're not going to be bound by any timelines," Reid told reporters, casting doubt on President Barack Obama's often-repeated goal of signing a bill on reforming the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system by the end of the year.

"We're going to do this legislation as expeditiously as we can, but we're going to do it as fairly as we can," Reid said.

The healthcare bill has been bogged down in the Senate as Reid awaits cost estimates from congressional budget analysts and searches for an approach that could win the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

Democrats in the House pushed ahead with plans to take up a healthcare reform bill later this week, and Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said they had enough support to pass it.

"I am confident that we are going to pass this bill," Hoyer told reporters, predicting passage before a planned recess begins in the middle of next week.

A conference committee probably would need to work out differences in the two chambers' bills, meaning the Senate needs to pass its version by early December to allow time to reconcile the measures and get them to Obama to sign into law.

The healthcare bills are designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to millions of uninsured and end industry practices such as refusing to insure people who are ill.

Obama and Democratic advocates have pushed for quick passage to prevent the issue from becoming ensnarled in the 2010 congressional elections, when all House members and one-third of the 100 senators face re-election.

DRAG IT OUT

Republican opponents hope dragging out the timetable will allow more time for public opposition to mount, as it did in August when lawmakers went home for a one-month recess and faced sometimes fierce criticism at meetings with voters.

Democratic Senators Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance panel, and Charles Schumer both said they believed Congress could finish work on healthcare this year.

"There is no reason why we can't have a transparent and thorough debate in the Senate and still send a bill to the president by Christmas," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was not concerned about the Senate's difficulties. "We would hope it would be sooner," Pelosi told reporters of Senate passage, but added: "I don't think anybody has a clock ticking."

Reid, who led more than a week of closed-door talks on melding two Senate bills into one, said he has not heard back from the Congressional Budget Office after sending it several provisions of the merged healthcare bill for cost estimates.

"We're doing this just as quickly as we can," Reid said.

Many of the healthcare changes under the bill would not become law until 2013, although some new insurance regulations and prescription drug coverage would be effective immediately.

Reid has announced he will include a government-run public insurance option, one of the flashpoints in the healthcare debate, in the final bill. But a group of Senate moderates remain uncommitted on that approach.

Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he will join Republicans and block a final vote if the bill includes the public option. Reid has no margin of error because Democrats control exactly 60 seats -- the number needed to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

The House measure also includes a public option, which Obama and other advocates support as a way to create competition in the insurance market. Critics say it would lead to a government takeover of the sector.

The insurance industry, which has battled against the public option, has become embroiled in an escalating fight with Democrats preparing the healthcare reform bill.

Democrat Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate health panel, said the committee will investigate health insurers' pricing practices in the small group market.

The House bill requires individuals to buy insurance and all but the smallest employers to offer health coverage to workers. It also would bar insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions and eliminate the industry's exemption from federal antitrust laws.

It would offer subsidies to help the uninsured purchase insurance through newly created exchanges.

Harkin said Republicans will get a vote on their alternative, which they presented on Tuesday. The Republican plan focuses on reducing costs and would not bar insurers from dropping the sick or refusing to cover those with pre-existing conditions.

Hoyer said party leaders were still working to resolve the concerns of about 40 Democratic House moderates who want to strengthen the language in the bill to ensure no federal funds are used to pay for abortions. (Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chris Wilson)