WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats on Tuesday cast doubt on their chances of meeting the White House’s March 18 deadline for voting on a stalled healthcare overhaul, but said they are moving as fast as they can.
With Democrats scrambling to line up support and determine what to include in a final healthcare package, the March 18 target set by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs last week appears unlikely — to the surprise of no one in Congress, where healthcare deadlines have been missed repeatedly.
“None of us have mentioned the 18th other than Mr. Gibbs,” Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, told reporters. “We are trying to do this as soon as possible. That continues to be our objective.”
Gibbs later told reporters he still thought the House could vote on the Senate’s version of healthcare reform before President Barack Obama leaves on an overseas trip on March 18.
“I’ve been given nothing that would change that advice that I was given last week,” Gibbs said.
Congress has struggled to pass healthcare reform, one of Obama’s top legislative priorities, and has missed a series of White House-imposed deadlines for approving the bill and sending it to the president for his signature.
If the deadline slips much further, beyond a two-week congressional break for Easter, the challenges of passing a bill would increase as the November congressional elections grow closer.
“Deadlines are both a blessing and a curse,” said Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “They are a blessing because they get you focused on making a decision but they are a curse if you can’t make them, and this has happened over and over again.”
Democrats hope to finish work before the recess begins on March 26 on Obama’s healthcare plan, which is designed to rein in costs, regulate health insurers and expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans.
Asked if it was still possible to finish the bill by the start of the Easter recess, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters: “That would be my hope.”
The House and Senate passed separate healthcare reform bills last year, but efforts to merge them into a final product collapsed in January when Democrats lost their crucial 60th vote in a special Senate election in Massachusetts.
Democrats now hope to approve the final legislation in a two-step process. House Democrats would approve the Senate’s version of the bill and the two chambers would pass a separate measure making changes to the Senate bill sought by Obama and House Democrats.
The second bill would be passed using a process called reconciliation requiring only a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, bypassing the need for 60 votes to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.
Senate and House leaders are still putting the second bill together and awaiting cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, a process that could slip into next week.
Pelosi and other Senate and House leaders met for more than an hour at the Capitol with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to discuss the next steps on healthcare, and afterward Pelosi said they were making progress.
“We’re making good progress and if we get some final figures from the Congressional Budget office we can even make more progress,” she said.
Republicans warned House Democrats not to count on the Senate to pass the second bill.
“House Democrats will have to decide whether they want to trust the Senate to fix their political problems,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said.
The bill incorporates fixes to the Senate bill proposed by Obama last month, including modifications to a tax on high-cost “Cadillac” health insurance plans and expanded federal subsidies to make insurance more affordable.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; editing by David Alexander and Xavier Briand