Self-Imposed Health Care Deadline Looms

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are returning to work on efforts to craft a bill to overhaul the nation's health care system. House and Senate leaders have pledged to get health bills passed by both chambers before members leave for their annual summer break next month. However, sometimes Congress acts at its own pace.

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On Capitol Hill, lawmakers resume work this morning on a bill to overhaul the nation's health care system. House and Senate leaders have pledged to get health bills passed in both chambers before members leave for their annual summer break next month. Still, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, sometimes Congress acts at its own pace, deadline or not.

JULIE ROVNER: When it comes to the health care effort, the expectations couldn't get much higher. Here's how former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle put it at a recent breakfast briefing.

Mr. TOM DASCHLE (Former Senate Democratic Leader): I think it's fair to say that July is going to be the most historic and consequential period for health reform perhaps in all of history. Never at any time that I can recall has so much come down to a matter of just a few weeks.

ROVNER: While Congress was out last week for the Fourth of July, some key members - or more accurately, their staffs - stayed in Washington to continue working. And they made some progress.

The Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, for example, unveiled some major missing pieces of its bill, including a requirement for individuals to purchase insurance and employers to help pay for it. The bill also includes a new government-sponsored plan that would compete with private health insurance companies.

Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse is a member of the panel.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): We have agreed on a public plan option that has the, at this point, unanimous support of the Democrats on the committee across the board, including some of our more conservative colleagues, including some of our very progressive colleagues.

ROVNER: The bill also has a lower price tag, about $600 billion over 10 years, down more than half from an earlier preliminary estimate.

The public plan part of the bill, however, doesn't have the support of any of the Republicans on the HELP Committee. It's also been a major sticking point over at Senate Finance, the other Senate committee working on the health issue.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana has been struggling to find common ground with his top Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Grassley's comments on "Face the Nation" Sunday made it clear at least when it comes to a public plan there's no deal yet.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): The federal government is in the process of nationalizing banks, nationalizing General Motors. Well, I'm going to make sure we don't nationalize health insurance, and public option is the first step to doing that.

ROVNER: That's leaving some Democrats, including Senator Whitehouse, wondering if Republicans are simply using Democrats' pursuit of bipartisanship as a tactic against them. Republicans, he says…

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: Can move the bipartisanship goal posts around the field all day long, and we'll never catch up. And they can take all the time in the world until this thing dies. And we can't let either of those two things happen.

ROVNER: Other Republicans, however, like former Minnesota Senator Dave Durenberger, think President Obama needs to make more of an impact on the debate. So far, he says, the debate is simply flying over the heads of most of the voting public.

Mr. DAVE DURENBERGER (Former Senator, Minnesota): We know that health care costs are high. We know that job loss is related to it. But it's very difficult from out here to translate that into public plan and trillion-dollar savings, and, you know, all the rest of this language of Washington, D.C.

ROVNER: Durenberger says that while health care is an intensely complicated subject, President Obama is more than up to the task of explaining it.

Mr. DURENBERGER: This is the first time we've had a president who has the rhetorical gifts of communicating with the 300-plus million of us about what it might be like to live in a real American health system if only we could get from where we are today to what that American health system could be.

ROVNER: The House actually seems well on its way to getting its bill to the floor by the end of the month, but if the Senate doesn't pick up the pace soon, chances for a final bill by the end of the year will start to dim considerably.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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