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Health care reform deadlines: Dead on arrival?

By Ed Hornick, CNN
President Obama wants Congress to pass a health care reform bill before its Easter break.
President Obama wants Congress to pass a health care reform bill before its Easter break.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama has set three deadlines for health care reform
  • Controversial issue remains stalled in Congress over key issues such as cost
  • Newest deadline is March 18, when Obama goes overseas

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama has set them -- and they've repeatedly been missed.

But with Easter recess coming, Obama's latest deadline to pass health care reform legislation could be his last one.

Over the summer, as the health care reform battle was brewing in Congress and at town hall meetings across the country, the president called on both the House and Senate to pass legislation by the end of August in order for a comprehensive bill to see its way to his desk by the end of the year.

That didn't happen.

The White House and members of Congress faced several hurdles, from Republican opposition to divisions within the Democratic Party, on specific items in the proposed legislation.

Deadline one

During his inaugural address, Obama pledged to make health care reform one of his top domestic agenda items. It was also a campaign promise he wanted to uphold.

In February 2009, Obama called on Democrats to begin crafting a health care reform bill that would allow millions more Americans to get health care insurance -- and cut down on some of the controversial industry practices.

"The cost of health care has weighed down our economy and our conscience long enough. So let there be no doubt, health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year," Obama said.

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Top Democrats soon got to work. As summer approached, Obama pushed members of the House and Senate to pass their respective versions of a bill by Congress' August recess.

In a news conference July 22, the president said the deadline was set because of the messages he received from Americans.

"I'm rushed because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by health care costs," he said. "If you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen. The default position is inertia."

But in an interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, Obama admitted that if something was close to being done and would not make the deadline, it could "spill over by a few days or a week."

But getting the controversial issue through Congress is not an easy task, even with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Republican opposition to the plans has been vocal and direct.

Political observers have noted that part of the problem getting Congress to push forward on the legislation was Obama's lack of personal involvement in crafting the bill. During the summer, he remained mostly out of the legislative weeds and deferred much of the wrangling to Democratic leaders.

"But inertia is what some members of his own party might accuse the president himself of," Time magazine's Karen Tumulty said at the time. "And if they had any hope that Obama would get more specific on what he wants to see in a final health care bill, they must have been sorely disappointed."

Deadline two

After the August deadline passed, the Obama administration kicked into high gear, taking greater control of the bill's direction. The president indicated that he wanted a final bill passed by the end of the year.

He got his first victory in early November, when the House passed its version of the bill by a vote of 220-215. Only one Republican voted in favor.

Negotiations in the Senate, however, have not been so easy. Concerns by moderates and liberals in the Democratic Party, along with the possibility of a Republican filibuster, threatened to derail the bill's passage.

In the end, after several late-night sessions over the fall, the Senate passed its bill December 24 on a vote of 60-39. Every member of the Democratic caucus supported the bill, and every Republican opposed it.

Despite the passage in both the House and Senate, it would be impossible to get a final bill passed by December 31, as both versions would need to be merged into one final bill. That process continues to this day.

In January, the president admitted that he had run into a health care reform "buzz saw."

"Here's the good news: We've gotten pretty far down the road. But I've got to admit we've had a little bit of a buzz saw this week," Obama said January 10 at Lorain County Community College near Cleveland, Ohio.

Obama detailed some of the problems that slowed down the process, including "running headlong into special interests and armies of lobbyists and partisan politics that's aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done."

He added: "And then you've got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. And the longer it takes, the uglier it looks."

Another problem: Democrats losing their supermajority in the Senate after the GOP upset in the Massachusetts special election to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat.

Republican Scott Brown beat Democrat Martha Coakley to become the 51st Republican senator. Brown, who campaigned against the Democrats' health care plan, has repeatedly said he will vote against a final bill.

Deadline three

After presenting his health care reform plan, Obama has called for a final up or down vote in Congress within the next few weeks. No Republicans, however, are expected to vote for the nearly $1 trillion package.

Nonetheless, a deadline has been set.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he expects the House to approve the Senate bill by March 18, when the president heads overseas.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pushed back against that deadline, saying, "none of us has mentioned the 18th other than Mr Gibbs."

"We are trying to do this as soon as possible," Hoyer added. "That continues to be our objective."

Democratic sources have said that after the House acts, a separate package of changes designed in part to make the overall measure sell-able to House liberals would then be approved by both chambers, getting through the Senate under a controversial legislative maneuver known as reconciliation. Bills passed that way require a majority of only 51 votes.

 
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