With the clock ticking on a health care overhaul, Democrats in the House worked furiously to win the support of a faction of moderates in their party while Senate Democrats wondered whether they would simply run out of time this year and be forced to wait until 2010 to try to pass a bill.
"We're not going to be bound by any time lines," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. "We need to do the best job we can for the American people. We want quality legislation, and we're going to do that."
Reid's remarks set of a fury of speculation that the Democratic leadership was throwing up the towel on a passing a health care bill this year.
While Reid spokesman Jim Manley issued a statement later saying the Senate is on track to send President Obama a bill by Christmas as the White House has asked, rank-and-file members pointed out that they have still not even seen Reid's bill, which he sent last week for a cost analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
When asked whether a bill would pass by the end of the year, many Senate Democrats said they had no idea.
GOP offers health-care alternative
The GOP is circulating a one-page summary of their 229-page health care alternative on Capitol Hill.
The summary released Tuesday includes 11 recommendations, such as allowing people to purchase insurance policies across state lines, which they say could increase competition and lower premiums.
Republicans also call for creating universal access programs so that people with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.
Their proposal would prohibit insurers from dropping policyholders unless there is evidence of fraud. Instead, it would give employers "greater flexibility to financially reward employees who adopt healthier lifestyles," and would allow some people to use tax-exempt health savings accounts to pay for insurance premiums.
Like the Democratic bill, the GOP measure would let children remain on their parents' health insurance policies into adulthood. Republicans said their alternative would not cost jobs, raise taxes or result in Medicare cuts.
"I hope so," Sen. Jay Rockerfeller, D-W.Va., said. "I don't know...I don't know."
Senate Democrats made very little progress in uniting around health care on during their closed policy lunch, mostly because the contents of the bill remain a mystery.
"There isn't much to talk about other than all the speculation," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a key moderate, told The Examiner.
The Senate has about six work weeks remaining until the end of the year, if two weeks are set aside for Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks. With Senators demanding several weeks of debate on the bill, that leaves just a few weeks to get a bill to the floor and negotiate a compromise with enough Democratic moderates and Independents to secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Senate Democratic leaders are hoping to get the CBO score by the end of the week and they are trying to decide whether to begin floor debate after Thanksgiving.
In the House, Democrats have written an amendment to their health care bill aimed a appeasing a faction of pro-life lawmakers in their party who are threatening to oppose the House health care bill unless there is language added that would ensure taxpayer dollars do not fund abortion.
The language is not as strong as Democrats like Bart Stupak, D-MI., have requested, but Democratic leaders Tuesday evening were trying to gauge whether it would be enough to placate most of the pro-life group. House Democrats hope to have their health care bill on the floor by the end of the week.