A key Senate Democrat charged with overseeing his party’s swift push for universal health care indicated Tuesday that such reform may have to wait until next year, as other priorities related to the economy and military take precedence.
“Why might reform not happen this year? As is often the case, the new administration and the new Congress face competing priorities,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee chairman, at a health policy conference in Washington. “These priorities compete for time on the agenda and attention in the press and in public.”
“The president’s dance card is indeed full,” he added.
Mr. Baucus said he is committed to passing legislation this year, but to overhaul the nation’s health care system, several “obstacles” such as the slumping economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budget deficit and efforts to wean the country from its dependency on foreign oil may take precedence.
The cautious comments by Mr. Baucus, whose committee has authority over writing health care-related legislation in the Senate, are a step back from earlier promises by Democrats and President Obama to address the issue.
The administration and Capitol Hill Democrats hope to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton administration’s failed push for universal health care in the summer of 1993, when critics accused President Clinton of waiting too long to introduce the plan after taking office in January.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, last week presaged Mr. Baucus, saying he was committed to bringing “comprehensive reform to the floor of the 111th Congress,” which concludes in January 2011.
But Mr. Baucus’ and Mr. Hoyer’s position differs from that of another key Democrat in charge of writing health care legislation. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last week promised to pass a comprehensive health care reform package in 2009.
“This is our time; we need to move forward; we need to get this job accomplished this year and get the bill to the president,” Mr. Waxman said. “The health of our economy depends on a great extent on our dealing with the health of our health care system.”
But Mr. Baucus said that even if health care reform is pushed back until 2010 or later, voters in November gave Congress and the White House a clear mandate to change the nation’s health care system.
The Democrat added that a confluence of three trends in health care - growing numbers of uninsured, uneven quality of care and skyrocketing costs - had reached a critical point at which action seemed certain.
“The voices calling for health reform have only intensified,” Mr. Baucus said. “The American people elected a new president and a newly empowered congressional majority. We have a duty to deliver the change for which the people voted.”