- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

Obama administration officials said Sunday that good progress is being made toward the administration’s goal of having a bill ready by August to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

White House Budget Director Peter R. Orszag told “Fox News Sunday” that “the chances are high” that a comprehensive health care package will emerge from Congress before lawmakers break for their monthlong summer recess next month.

“That is the goal,” he said.

Later Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mr. Orszag downplayed speculation that ongoing deliberations on Capitol Hill could delay drafting a health care overhaul until at least September.

“This is the legislative process, and this is what normally happens,” he said. “I think we are making good progress.”

The budget director stopped short of a definitive prediction that Congress will draft a meaningful health care measure in the next two weeks.

“Remember, none of this is easy,” he said on “State of the Union.”

“There’s a reason why this hasn’t happened in 50 years, and we’re making a lot of progress,” he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she is hopeful that Congress can broker a health care deal before the August break.

The president is “very clearly urging the House and Senate to stay at the table and work,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “They’re working very hard.”

“We think this can be done; the House and Senate are on track and on time,” she said.

But Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said his chamber had a bill ready, but the Senate still needed to uphold its side of the legislative process.

“The president has given us a deadline. We’re working under it. Our committee has reported out a bill,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’re waiting for the Senate to do what? Do anything.”

Even before last week’s welter of plans and criticisms, lawmakers in both parties were skeptical that an August deadline could be met.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said meeting the August deadline was “highly unlikely,” and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona said flatly there was “no chance.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said, “We expect the House and Senate to have passed bills” before leaving Washington, though he doubted the legislation would be signed into law by that time. Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said the bill likely would “be through the Finance Committee by the August recess.”

The administration in recent days had ramped up efforts to defend its health care proposal while facing independent budget predictions that contradict some of its rhetoric.

The independent Congressional Budget Office on Thursday said the Democrats’ health care bills would not lower skyrocketing costs and would drive up government spending, undermining one of President Obama’s chief arguments for the overhaul.

Because several congressional committees are working simultaneously on different versions of the health care legislation, Mrs. Sebelius urged that the Democrats’ plans not be judged until Congress writes a final version.

“This is a work in progress,” she said. “More will be done. The House and the Senate are committed to working with the president to get this done.”

Mr. Orszag said meeting the White House’s deadline isn’t the lawmakers’ only goal, as Mr. Obama has demanded that Congress send him a bill that doesn’t add to the deficit. The budget director said the administration’s health care proposal is financially sound and “deficit neutral.”

Top Senate Republicans dug in their heels Sunday, complaining that the administration had no interest in drafting a bipartisan bill and warned the White House and Democrats against attempts to ram through health care legislation just to meet an arbitrary deadline.

“This is the same kind of rush-and-spend strategy we saw on the stimulus bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on “Meet the Press.” Any plan merely hatched among Democrats to meet a deadline “shouldn’t pass at any point, either before the August recess or later in the year.”

“What we need to come up with is a truly bipartisan proposal,” he said.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and member of two Senate committees working on health care legislation, spoke similarly, saying “There hasn’t been a real interchange with Republicans on this issue.

“We have a lot of ideas I think would help. I don’t blame Charlie [Rangel] for that. I blame the leadership. And I blame the president for pushing something so hard so that they’re definitely afraid that over the August recess that if they don’t get this passed … they are going to get an earful [from the public].”

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