Senate panel awaits report before health vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic hopes for a quick Senate Finance Committee vote on a broad U.S. healthcare overhaul were dashed on Monday as budget experts took longer than expected with their estimate of the bill’s cost.

Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, discusses the healthcare reform bill during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 16, 2009. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

The panel, chaired by Senator Max Baucus, agreed to delay a vote until it received a preliminary analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Aides said that number would not be ready until later in the week, killing hopes for a vote as early as Tuesday.

“We are expecting CBO scores later this week and will vote after we get those scores,” a panel aide said.

Delays have become commonplace for President Barack Obama’s push to revamp the U.S. healthcare system, which has been slowed to a crawl in Congress by political battles over its size and cost.

Obama has made healthcare reform his top domestic priority, urging Congress to pass a measure to cut costs, regulate the insurance market and expand coverage to the uninsured.

The vote in the Democratic-controlled Finance Committee will follow seven days of debate on the 10-year, $900 billion plan proposed by Baucus. Republicans demanded a fresh analysis from CBO incorporating the amendments added during the debate.

CBO officials had told the committee they could probably complete a preliminary analysis within a few days, raising expectations it would be ready on Monday.

The Finance Committee, the last of five panels in Congress to vote on a healthcare plan, is expected to approve its measure largely along party lines. Democrats control the committee with a 13-10 majority.

Senator Olympia Snowe, targeted by Democrats as the only potential Republican backer, has not taken a stance on the bill yet. Democrats Ron Wyden and John Rockefeller also have not endorsed it yet.

If the measure passes as expected, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid will merge the Senate Finance bill with one passed by the Senate Health panel and move the merged legislation to the floor as quickly as possible.

Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by John O’Callaghan