Still struggling to line up the 60 votes that are needed to overcome a potential filibuster of health care reform, Senate majority leader Harry Reid sent a strong signal on Tuesday that President Obama is unlikely to be signing his top domestic priority into law this year, as Democrats had hoped. "We're not going to be bound by timelines," Reid told reporters as he emerged from a weekly lunch with Democratic Senators. He vowed to pass a bill "as expeditiously as we can," which is another way of saying it will probably be slow going over the weeks to come.
Reid's comments were such a departure from the official line that, as soon as reports of them began appearing, his office issued a statement attempting to take the edge off of them. "Our goals remain unchanged. We want to get health insurance reform done this year, and we have unprecedented momentum to achieve that," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "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."
No reason, that is, except for the fact that it is already November.
All year, Democratic strategists on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have made no secret of the fact that they do not view time as their friend on enacting health reform, a goal that has eluded every President since Harry Truman who has attempted it. At one point, Democrats hoped to have the bill passed by both houses over the summer and on Obama's desk in the fall. Instead, the August recess was dominated by cable-television images of near riots at congressional town-hall meetings, and it took a dramatic, game-changing presidential address to a joint session of Congress to get health reform back on track.
But with the turning of a page in the calendar comes a new challenge Congress will be entering an election year, not normally a time when it likes to take big political risks. Nor are lawmakers generally prone to be quick off the starting blocks when they return to Washington from the holiday recess, which means that the health care debate could drag on through the winter.
Reid's decision to include a public option in the bill that he takes to the floor has also complicated matters. While applauded by the party's liberal base, the idea of adding a government-run alternative plan to the choices for covering the uninsured faces resistance from some of the Senate's more conservative Democrats as well as Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only Republican who has shown any serious interest in supporting the bill. And to get anything over the hurdle of a threatened GOP filibuster, Reid will need to hold together his entire caucus of 60 Democrats. At this point, said a senior Democratic aide, the majority leader is only "cautiously optimistic" that he has the votes to simply bring the bill to the floor under a normally non-controversial "motion to proceed" and is still at least several votes short of 60 on the more serious subsequent procedural vote, known as cloture, that would be needed to cut off debate.
There are also more practical hurdles, including the fact that Reid has not yet received an official analysis of his legislation from the Congressional Budget Office, and may not until late next week. Senators will not want to begin debating the legislation until they have the CBO's projection of how much it will cost and how it will affect the deficit. Between next week's Veteran's Day recess and the subsequent Thanksgiving break, that means it may well be December before the bill even gets to the Senate floor.
If that is so, the best-case scenario becomes this: both the House and the Senate pass their versions of the health care bill before leaving at the end of the year, and a conference committee begins its work while they are gone; a conference committee report, while controversial, would likely pass a Democratic Congress. If not, a loss of momentum could dampen the sense of inevitability that, as much as anything else, has brought health care reform to the point of being nearly within reach.