WASHINGTON — Slow down, Senate Democrats told President Barack Obama on Thursday, dashing hopes of rushing his sweeping health care overhaul to a summertime vote and adding to troubles the plan could face as the year wears on.
"That's okay," the president replied gamely. "Just keep working."
No one is suggesting that delay equals defeat. In fact, the Senate's top Democrat promised a bipartisan bill in the next two weeks. But Obama has been pushing hard for quick passage of legislation he can sign to expand coverage to all Americans and control ruinous medical costs. And he's counting on fast action while his first-year popularity holds.
Republican foes have stepped up their attacks in hopes of weakening if not killing the historic changes in the way America provides and pays for health care. But they're not the source of the immediate problem. Divisions within the ranks of Obama's fellow Democrats have stalled the legislation.
While confirming there will be no Senate vote before Congress goes home in early August, the chamber's Democratic leaders spoke optimistically of wrapping up a bipartisan bill in the next two weeks.
That offered no reassurance to Democrats in the House, many of whom are reluctant to vote on a $540 billion tax increase to help pay for the overhaul unless senators also stick their necks out before an election year.
On a trip to Ohio, Obama shrugged off the delay. "I want to get it right. But I also want to get it done promptly," Obama said.
The president compared the health overhaul to NASA's Apollo program that landed astronauts on the moon 40 years ago this week. "We can do this," he insisted.
But many are questioning the engineering of House and Senate committee bills that emerged in recent weeks. Doubts revolve around costs to taxpayers and the reach of government. In the House, moderate and conservative Democrats bucked against legislation written by party elders. In the Senate, moderate Democrats are insisting on trying to work out a deal with a handful of Republicans who are willing to talk.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., suggested that slowing things down may be the wise course for now.
"It's better to have a product based on quality and thoughtfulness rather than try to jam something through," Reid said, delivering the official announcement of the delay. His words were a near-echo of moderate Republicans who support sweeping changes but criticize Obama's rush to act.
In the House, Democratic leaders struggled to win over rebellious moderates and conservative rank-and-file party members who are demanding changes. The dispute has forced Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to postpone work on the legislation for three straight days while he negotiates with seven Democrats who are members of a group of fiscal conservatives called the Blue Dogs.
Waxman's committee is the last of three House panels trying to finish the $1.5 trillion, 10-year legislation that would create a government-run plan to compete with private insurance, increase taxes on the wealthy and require employers and individuals to get health insurance. While the taxes would be levied starting in 2011, the expansion of coverage wouldn't come until 2013 — after the next presidential election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't rule out keeping lawmakers at work in August to get the bill done but said it might not be necessary.
"I'm not afraid of August. It's a month," Pelosi said.