Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday abandoned plans for a vote on health care before Congress' August recess, dealing a blow to President Barack Obama's ambitious timetable to revamp the nation's $2.4 trillion system of medical care.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., delivered the official pronouncement, saying, "It's better to have a product based on quality and thoughtfulness rather than try to jam something through."
His words were a near-echo of Republicans who have criticized what they have called a rush to act on complex legislation that affects every American.
Obama shrugged off the delay.
"That's OK, I just want people to keep on working," Obama told a town hall meeting in Cleveland. "I want it done by the end of the year. I want it done by the fall."
Reid said the Senate Finance Committee will act on its portion of the bill before lawmakers' monthlong break. Reid then will merge that bill with separate legislation passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this month.
The process will be difficult since Finance, led by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is seeking a bipartisan deal while the health committee bill was passed by Democrats on a party-line vote.
Obama had pushed for votes in the House and Senate before August to ensure that lawmakers had enough time to meld the two bills into comprehensive legislation by December before the start of a politically charged congressional election year.
Obama has made nearly daily appeals for the overhaul in the past two weeks and has summoned more than a dozen lawmakers to the White House to make his case. At stake is a massive remaking of the system. So is Obama's credibility.
At the town hall, Obama likened his health care effort to the race to put a man on the moon 40 years ago, saying some dismissed President John F. Kennedy's effort as "foolish, even impossible" and were proven wrong.
"Reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington, but it's not soon enough for the American people," Obama said.
Reid said the decision to delay a vote was made Wednesday night in hopes of getting a final bill that can win at least 60 votes in the Senate.
He said he had listened to requests from senior Republicans working with Baucus to allow more time for a compromise to emerge.
"I don't think it's unreasonable," he said.
Some Democrats are frustrated with the pace of fulfilling Obama's goal of expanding coverage to Americans who lack it and containing rising costs.
"The Finance Committee keeps dragging their feet and dragging their feet and dragging their feet. It's time for them to fish or cut bait," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in a conference call with Iowa reporters.
But at the same time, nine freshman Senate Democrats, largely from swing states, sent a letter to Baucus urging him to keep working toward a bipartisan solution.
In the House, Democratic leaders are struggling to win over rebellious moderates and conservative rank-and-file party members who are demanding changes to their version of the legislation. The dispute has forced Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to postpone work on the bill for three straight days while he negotiates.
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.
Many of the provisions of the legislation wouldn't take effect until 2013 after the next presidential election.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking House Democrat, said a Thursday morning, 90-minute meeting of the leadership was particularly contentious. He said lawmakers should abandon plans for their monthlong break if the House hasn't passed a health care bill.
"We must stay here and get this thing done," he said at a news conference. "I feel very strongly about that. ... I think it will affect our standing with the American people if we don't do this."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't rule out going into 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. "What I am interested in is the sooner the better to pass health care for the American people."
"We will take the bill to the floor when it is ready, and when it is ready we will have the votes to pass it," Pelosi added. She stood by but didn't repeat a claim she made Wednesday that she has the necessary votes now.
Underscoring the deep divisions among Democrats was concern among members of the Congressional Black Caucus that Obama and the leadership were making too many concessions to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats.
Leaders of the Black Caucus said they had requested a meeting with Obama.
"We felt it was important that more than one voice be heard," said Donna Christensen, the congressional delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands who is leading the caucus' health care efforts. "When we hear phrases like 'squeezing more savings out of the system' ... we're concerned that what may be taken out will be provisions that are critical to our communities."
The black caucus wants to make sure that any overhaul retains core provisions such as a public health insurance option that guarantees coverage for everyone.
"We don't want to see them negotiated or eroded away," said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.