Road Map: Leaders Eyeing One More Week in August

Posted July 13, 2009 at 6:45pm

Don’t inflate those beach balls just yet, and if you’ve got plans for Christmas, you might want to cancel those, too.

[IMGCAP(1)]Congressional leaders are not just talking about keeping Members in session until the pitter-patter of Santa’s reindeer can be heard on the roof. Senate Democratic leaders also are seriously considering staying an extra week in August to meet their goal of passing health care reform.

So instead of the Senate leaving Washington on Aug. 7, Members in that chamber wouldn’t be gone until the 14th at the earliest — two weeks after the House is scheduled to turn off the lights. Then, of course, there’s what’s shaping up to be an interminable fall legislative lineup that leaders anticipate will take them well into December.

Senate Democrats say they’ve got their reasons for potentially shortening everyone’s vacation time. After all, that health care bill isn’t writing itself, and in the Senate, at least, they haven’t even really begun to scratch the surface on climate change, which could get pushed deep into the fall.

Still, Democrats acknowledge that having an extended August session only works if the Senate Finance Committee can actually introduce a health care bill this week, mark it up next week and carefully weave it together with a separate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill before Aug. 1.

Can they do it? Senate Democratic leaders certainly believe so.

“The Senate should move in an expeditious way to finish our committee hearings, bring this bill to the floor before the August recess,— Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on ABC.

Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) was equally optimistic. “We expect the House and Senate to have passed bills [by August], yes,— he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.—

Schumer added that he believes Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) “goal to have a plan that pays for it set by the end of this week will happen.—

Democratic aides agreed that both their intraparty talks and those they are having with a handful of Republicans were productive last week. And they said they are closing in on a bill.

Still, hard decisions will have to be made if a bill is to come to the floor within weeks, and inevitably not everyone is going to be happy with the end result.

After all, the HELP bill, which is due to be passed out of committee this week, will likely create a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private companies — the preference of most Democrats. But the Finance panel has been toying with a bipartisan compromise that involves creating a nonprofit health insurance cooperative or group of cooperatives that would get an initial infusion of money from the government but ultimately be run by its members.

Picking the winner in that fight could come down to President Barack Obama, but there’s no doubt Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have a strong hand as well.

But even if all of that goes smoothly, will the Senate really be able to complete a health care debate — that will certainly require a filibuster-proof 60-votes — in only two weeks?

Here’s Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander’s (Tenn.) take: “I can’t imagine passing a health care bill without debating it fully and amending it over a several week period of time.—

Alexander referenced the three to four weeks the Senate has spent on energy legislation in the past.

And what about that idea Democrats are bandying about to try to debate both health care and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court at the same time?

“The Senate’s perfectly capable of doing two things at once, but when we get a major issue like health care we ought to devote our full attention to it,— Alexander said.

So, it looks like getting GOP cooperation on shortening the debate time will be a challenge to say the least. After all, most Republicans have pooh-poohed both the public insurance option as well as the co-op idea. And some centrist Democrats haven’t exactly warmed to either idea.

However, the bold July-into-August schedule is far from a done deal, aides warned. But by setting a rapid pace for action, leaders at least hope to make sure the debates on health care and climate change actually happen this year.

“If you don’t set timelines that are ambitious … then you allow even more slippage,— explained one senior Senate Democratic aide. “If you say, We want to do health care in July and climate change in September,’ then what you end up doing is health care in September and climate change in November.—

And most Democrats seem to think that’s a more realistic scenario than the one to which Senate leaders are aspiring.

Another Senate Democratic aide said leaders should keep their goal for this month simple by just shooting to get the actual bills out of the Finance and HELP committees before they leave town for the August recess.

“It might benefit Senators to report these bills out of committee and go back home and sell them a little bit— to constituents, the aide said. “We still have plenty of time to finish health care this year. The idea of finishing a bill before the August recess was a laudable goal, but sometimes you have to push things back in order to get things done.—

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) agrees. “I think we’ll be through the Finance Committee by the August recess, and I think that’s a realistic goal,— Conrad said Sunday on CNN. “You know, there really is plenty of time. Congress is going to be in session until Christmas Eve.—

The Senate Democratic aide also predicted that until “Democrats show a victory on health care,— they can’t possibly tackle climate change, which presents its own tricky intraparty issues.

About the only timeline that Democrats are sure won’t slip is the plan to confirm Sotomayor, whose hearings began Monday. “That’s the one think, I think, that they will keep people here for in August,— the senior Senate Democratic aide said.