A top Senate Democrat said his party is prepared to pass a health care reform bill without Republican help, indicating that inaction would be viewed as a bigger failure than not culling the bipartisan support President Obama initially sought.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said that if a bipartisan agreement isn’t reached by Sept. 15, Democrats would “have contingencies in place.” He added that they would “likely be considered only as a last resort.”
The most substantial of those contingencies is reconciliation. Under terms of the budget deal passed in April, Democrats would be able to limit a Republican filibuster and pass the health care reform bill with only 51 votes instead of the standard 60 to end debate. Mr. Schumer declined to name other options.
Previously, Democrats had been reluctant to threaten the measure, because it couldn’t be enacted until Oct. 15 and would threaten bipartisan negotiations. While it would give congressional Democrats approval to go ahead with some aspects of health care reform, it wouldn’t allow some policy changes, such as forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage of pre-existing conditions.
A group of six on the Senate Finance Committee has been trying to negotiate a bipartisan measure for weeks. The group’s slow pace - failing to meet deadlines established by Mr. Obama and Senate leaders - has frustrated Republican and Democratic leaders.
Four other congressional committees have passed their health legislation, but none has generated a Republican vote.
Republican support will be important in the Senate because the Democrats have two ill members, making it “a challenge to have 60 votes there at the same time,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Finance Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, told his Democratic colleagues last week that his group will have a plan and start markup by Sept. 15, Mr. Schumer said.
“If the Republicans are not able to produce an agreement [by then], we will have contingencies in place,” Mr. Schumer said. “These plans will likely be considered only as a last resort, but make no mistake about it: They remain on the table. Health reform is just too important to let this window pass by.”
But Republicans in the bipartisan group dismissed any idea of a deadline.
“We’re making progress, but we still have several significant, outstanding items to work on,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, said. “I won’t be moved by partisan threats to misuse the budget-reconciliation process.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican in the talks, told NPR last week that the group is 95 percent done with its work.
“Six weeks should be enough to sort that out,” Mr. Schumer said the of the last 5 percent.
The group, which also includes Democrats Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republicans Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Mr. Enzi, has said it plans to work through the Senate recess by videoconference.
Mr. Schumer is not in the group and has been a critic of its plan to introduce a health insurance cooperative instead of a public option.
Under the reconciliation provision, Democrats could push the reform bill through the Senate with just 51 votes and only 20 hours of debate. That would avoid a 60-vote threshold required to end a potential Republican filibuster.
Mr. Conrad, Senate Budget Committee chairman, signed off on the deal in his committee in April, calling it an “insurance policy” that he hoped wouldn’t be used. Coincidentally, he is now on the group of six trying to come up with a bipartisan solution.
Republicans on the committee said reconciliation would effectively silence the Senate minority. Mr. Enzi, in April, likened its use to a “declaration of war” on the minority.
Republicans last used a similar measure when they were in the majority in 2001 to pass President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.