The Senate Democratic leader indicated Tuesday that lawmakers may not complete health care legislation this year, missing President Barack Obama's deadline on his signature issue and pushing debate into a congressional election year.
With just eight weeks left, the Senate is running out of time to finish a comprehensive bill to extend coverage to millions of Americans and control rising medical costs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., emerged from a closed-door meeting of rank-and-file Democrats signaling that delay was likely.
Asked if he could pass health care this year, Reid said: "We're not going to be bound by any timelines. 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 said he was awaiting a final analysis of the legislation from the Congressional Budget office, a time-consuming process that makes it unlikely the Senate would begin debate before Veterans' Day, Nov. 11. With scores of amendments, Senate debate could take weeks.
"We're going to do this legislation as expeditiously as we can, but we're going to do it as fairly as we can, also," Reid told reporters.
Pushing the work into early next year could prove politically dicey as all of the House and a third of the Senate face elections in November. Lawmakers may be reluctant to cast votes that could be their undoing at the polls.
Obama has pressed Congress for a bill by year's end. Across the Capitol, the House is expected to vote on its version of legislation later this week. Lawmakers from both chambers then would have to meld the two bills and cast final votes in the House and Senate before the legislation could be sent to the president.
In the House, Republicans produced a draft health care bill that focuses on bringing down costs rather than extending coverage to nearly all Americans.
A 230-page draft was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press. A spokeswoman for Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said changes were still being made before the bill would be finalized in time to offer as an alternative when Democrats begin floor debate on their bill, possibly at the end of this week.
The bill leaves out a number of the key features of the Democrats' 1,990-page legislation, such as new requirements for employers to insure their employees and for nearly all Americans to purchase insurance. It also doesn't block insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions, as Democrats would do.
Instead, the Republican plan increases incentives for people to use health savings accounts, caps non-economic jury awards in medical malpractice cases at $250,000, provides various incentives to states with the aim of driving down premium costs and allows health insurance to be sold across state lines.
"As Leader Boehner has made clear, our proposal will focus on the No. 1 concern of the American people -- reducing health care costs, and we do it at a price tag our nation can afford," said spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier, though Republicans have not said how much their bill would cost.
Democrats immediately dismissed the Republican plan as insubstantial.
The GOP alternative "does little to provide security and stability to all Americans, doesn't provide insurance availability for all Americans, does little to expand access to coverage," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters.
"Ours is vastly superior and we think the American public will think that," Hoyer said.
The GOP draft bill obtained by The AP was dated Monday.
House Democrats, meanwhile, were working overtime to put the finishing touches on their 10-year, $1.2 trillion bill, which they released last week. Leaders were trying to resolve lingering concerns over language to bar federal funding of abortions and ensure that illegal immigrants don't receive government health benefits.
The Republican bill includes a permanent ban on any federal funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother, stronger language than the Democratic bill.