When Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess in early June, the temperature is likely to be a bit hotter in the nation's capital. It's likely to be hotter inside the U.S. Capitol as well, as lawmakers start the task of actually beginning to write a health care overhaul bill.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, says his panel remains on track to meet its deadline of getting a bill out of committee by the end of the month.
"We planned some time ago that our markup would be mid-June," he told reporters. "It's going to mid-June. We've not let anything slip."
Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the competing Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Some say Kennedy, who is being treated for brain cancer, will return to the Capitol to retake the gavel in time for his committee's bill-drafting session, also scheduled for mid-June. But Kennedy's return since falling ill last spring has been announced and then delayed several times before.
What is clear is that a lot of work has been done — and a lot of work remains left to do.
The Senate Finance Committee has done much of its work in the open. It's held lengthy roundtable sessions at which senators got to question health care experts. Those were followed by detailed policy options papers released to the public, which, in turn, were followed by meetings where senators discussed those options in private.
So far they've spent more than 30 hours on the project; perfectly appropriate, said the panel's ranking Republican member, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, "for something where we're redirecting 16 percent of the nation's gross domestic product."
Baucus told reporters Thursday that he put the odds of getting a bipartisan bill out of the Senate "very high; 75 to 80 percent."
But many large obstacles remain.
One of the biggest is how to pay for it. On Wednesday, a group of conservative House and Senate Republicans introduced a bill that they said included no new taxes of any sort.
"I don't believe we need to tax one penny more to fix health care in this country," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).
And while health experts would like to raise so-called sin taxes on things like alcohol and soft drinks sweetened with sugar, even some Democrats are balking at that possibility.
"I think that when you go to taxing Joe Sixpack on his beer and Joe Jr. on his soda pop, what Americans are gonna say is 'We're already spending $2.5 trillion [this year] on health care," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). "Can't you find some savings out of that enormous sum before you start hitting us with more of these taxes?"
The other big stumbling block remains whether or not to allow people to choose between private insurance coverage and a public plan that would be financed by the government, like Medicare.
Many Democrats say that must be part of an overall package; many Republicans, however, say the government is an unfair competitor.
"If you get government into it with a public plan, I don't care who you are, I don't care what your thinking is, within a relatively short period of time you're going to have price controls, and you're going to freeze the market forces out," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).
Baucus, meanwhile, made a plea to supporters of a fully government-funded, single-payer plan to back off of their complaints that their proposal is not under active consideration. Baucus had several single-payer advocates arrested by Capitol Police after they disrupted two of the roundtable sessions.
"It just can't pass, not today," he said. But for right now, "we can't squander this opportunity. We can't waste capital on something that's impossible."
Baucus said he hoped single-payer backers would support what he is trying to pass.
"We can reach a very, very good result, where the rate of increase in health care costs is dramatically coming down. That is huge," he said. "Everybody's going to have health insurance; that's not a bad result. And everybody's going to have quality health insurance; that's not a bad result."