Senate: Health Care Won't Get Done By August Recess

obamaABC News Photo Illustration
President Obama voiced support for a health care surtax last night but the proposal continues to draw fire from critics like former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who called the surtax "a coverup for a rate increase."

President Obama today showed no disappointment about the Senate's decision to delay a vote on health care reform beyond his initial deadline.

"That's OK," Obama said at a town hall meeting this afternoon at Shaker High School in Cleveland. "I just want people to keep on working. Just keep working."

"I want it done by the end of this year," Obama added. "I want it done by the fall."

Obama's remarks came shortly after the Senate announced it would not vote on a health care bill before Congress' August recess.

The timeline the president had hoped for was deemed unrealistic today, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said a Senate version of health care reform won't be finished before the break. Reid instead laid out new plans, saying the Senate Finance Committee would vote on its pieces of the measure before the Aug. 7 break, and he would then work on marrying that bill with the proposal to come out of a separate Senate health panel.

Reid said the Senate would consider the soon-to-be-merged bill shortly after the Senate returns Sept. 7.

Today Reid said he's honoring the requests of Republicans asking for more time.

"The decision was made to give them more time for the Finance Committee part of what we're trying to do, and I don't think it's unreasonable," he said.

"It's better to have a product based on quality and thoughtfulness than trying to jam something through," Reid added.

Today Obama said he's willing to wait until fall, or even the end of the year to get a comprehensive health care bill passed.

"My attitude is, I want to get it right, but I also want to get it done promptly," Obama said. "And so as long as I see folks working diligently and consistently, then I am comfortable with moving a process forward that builds as much consensus as possible."

Obama headed to Ohio today for a tour of the Cleveland Clinic, which he cited Wednesday night as "a role model for some of the kind of changes that we want to see."

"They've set up a system where patient care is the No. 1 concern, not bureaucracy, what forms have to be filled out, what do we get reimbursed for," the president said. "Those are changes that I think the American people want to see."

Capitol Hill Efforts To Reform Health Care

While the Senate was announcing its plans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters today that a House bill is on schedule.

"I am not afraid of August," Pelosi said, though it's looking more and more likely there will be a delay in the House as well. Pelosi insisted she has the votes to pass the bill but wouldn't say when that would be.

The chief concerns among Democrats include the costs to overhaul the program and tax increases on the wealthy.

Pelosi admitted there were issues that needed to be resolved but expressed confidence that they could be ironed out in the next 48 hours.

To do so, she'll need to resolve a deadlock between moderate Blue Dog Democrats and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in the House Energy and Commerce committee. Pelosi had a contentious closed-door meeting today with her Democratic caucus about whether or not the measure needs more time. The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said today the House should not go into recess until passing the bill.

Citing the "more than 130 national organizations," including the American Medical Association, that have backed Obama on his health care plan, Pelosi plugged reform as "probably the single most important initiative we can take to turn our economy around."

"I am very confident that we will be on schedule and we will be able to present a wonderful gift to the American people -- gift of confidence and of peace of mind," she said in a news conference.

Republicans also continue to step up their counteroffensive. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, repeated his calls for a new bill, saying that lawmakers should throw out the bill and start fresh.

There are currently four different bills circulating in Congress.

Obama Says He Won't Sign Reform That Adds 'Even One Dime' To Deficit

Obama today said some parts of the health care plan would need to happen quickly, like lowering the cost of prescription drugs for seniors, but he said the bulk of the reform would be complicated and take time.

Obama also returned to what are now familiar talking points about squeezing inefficiencies out of the current health care system in order to pay for reforms and assuaging concerns about a "government takeover" of health care.

Today he tried to assure the American public that he's very concerned about putting the country further into debt.

"If you are a taxpayer concerned about deficits, I want you to understand that I'm concerned about deficits too," he said. "And that's why I pledged that I will not sign health insurance reform. As badly as I think it's necessary, I won't sign it if that reform adds even one dime to our deficit over the next decade -- and I mean what I say."

Wednesday, in his prime time news conference, Obama backed off the August deadline he had set for Congress to pass a bill and tried to change the narrative, explaining that his deadline had been more of a motivator.

"I'm rushed, because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by health care costs, and they ask me 'Can you help?'" the president said in the nearly hour-long news conference. "The second thing is the fact that, if you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen. The default position is inertia, because doing something always creates some people who are unhappy."

While possibly the most compelling moment of the evening came in Obama's closing comments about the arrest of prominent Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the bulk of the press conference was focused on the battle to pass a health care bill in Congress.

Obama said he would reject any legislation that is "primarily funded through taxing middle class families."

But he continued to push both the House and Senate and urge lawmakers, especially Republicans, to move beyond the "game of politics."

"This debate is not a game for these Americans" affected by problems with the current system, "and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," Obama said in the East Room of the White House. "They are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down."

Obama used the presidential bully pulpit to project his talking points on health care reform and, at times, reverted to the professorial tone that marked the press conferences early in his presidency. He said health care reform is tied to improving the nation's struggling economy, and said several times Wednesday night that he'd inherited a massive deficit from the Bush administration.

He reiterated that message today in Cleveland, veering off script to admonish the previous administration.

"I have to say that folks have a lot of nerve who were -- helped us get into this fiscal hole and then start going around trying to talk about fiscal responsibility," Obama said. "I'm always a little surprised that… that people don't have a little more shame about having created a mess and then try to point fingers."

Obama Wants Legislation Finished This Year

The president is committed to getting legislation finished this year.

"We will pass reform that lowers cost, promotes choice and provides coverage that every American can count on, and we will do it this year," he said Wednesday.

Obama defended the stimulus plan, which has been criticized for not doing enough to create jobs quickly and being too costly.

The president said that as a result of his administration's actions, including the $787 billion package, "we have been able to pull our economy back from the brink."

But he cautioned that the nation still has "a long way to go."

In an interview with Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt Wednesday afternoon, Obama said this is the best opportunity to get health care reform passed and if it fails, nothing will happen for at least four years.

"If health care reform fails, there is no way that Congress is going to take up a serious effort to control health care inflation -- there's no way that we're going to pass the kinds of changes we've already talked about in Medicare, for example, in the absence of a more comprehensive reform package," he said. "And so what we're going to have is a situation in which it's just business as usual for, I think, the next four years at minimum, and maybe the next eight -- in which case the problem is just going to keep on getting worse and worse."

In his fourth prime time press conference from the White House, the president aimed his message directly at the American people, especially those skeptical about his push for reform.

"I realize that with all the charges and criticisms being thrown around in Washington, many Americans may be wondering, 'What's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?'" he said.

In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday, just under half, 49 percent, of Americans, said they approve of Obama's handling of health care, down 8 percent from when he took office.

Eight in 10 in the poll expressed concern that reform could reduce their quality, coverage and choice of care, and increase their costs, government bureaucracy and the deficit, with anywhere from 51 to 62 percent "very" concerned about these outcomes. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they doubted that they would be able to keep the coverage they have now without any changes, even though the president has said repeatedly that choice will remain.

The president dismissed the sinking approval ratings on health care, saying in a PBS interview Monday that "it means what we're doing is hard."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich today reiterated his concerns that the health care reform proposal, including the health care surtax for the rich and a mandatory fee for businesses that don't provide their employees with healthcare, would force job cuts.

Gingrich, the founder of the health policy think tank the Center for Health Transformation, said he was "very disappointed" in Obama for acting in what he called a liberal and partisan manner. The administration, he said, is only interested in "bigger government and higher taxes."

"I can tell you that if you're trying to create jobs, raising taxes is very destructive," he said. "All the highest taxing states in the U.S. have the highest unemployment. For some reason, liberals don't seem to be able to understand that you can't be hostile to the people who create jobs if you want jobs."

ABC News' Jonathan Karl, Rachel Martin, Jon Garcia, Huma Khan and Alice Gomstyn contributed to this report.