July 21, 2009 -- President Obama may have ratcheted up his rhetoric on health care reform, but late today it appeared Democratic support was wavering for the president's goal of passing health care bills in the House and Senate before the August recess.
"Members have concerns, and they're not just Blue Dogs," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters today, referring to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats. "I want to make it very clear that there's progressives, Blue Dogs and everybody in between who have expressed concerns, and we're working on that."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., expressed similar concerns over Obama's August deadline. "No one wants to tell the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] that she's moving too fast and they damn sure don't want to tell the president," Rangel told another lawmaker, according to The Associated Press.
On the other end of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has consistently said that a bill will be passed in the Senate by the August recess, today shifted his tone, telling reporters, "The goal is not deadlines; the goal is comprehensive health care reform."
Reid said today that Obama is the quarterback when it comes to reforming the health care system. "He's been calling the plays," he told reporters.
Reid said he hopes that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., will come up with a bill by the end of the week, but Baucus appeared non-committal.
"I don't have any deadlines; I've never had any deadlines," Baucus said today.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said finance committee negotiators are mindful of the time it is taking to hammer out a deal, but he added that, "there is such an interest in this deadline and that deadline" that it is not useful.
Conrad told reporters that today's talks have focused on the potential impact of making health insurance mandatory for employers and individuals. He said he still hopes to find a way to pay for health reform from the $2.5 trillion pool of uncollected revenue the federal government leaves on the table by not taxing benefits.
Senators on the finance committee are expected to continue working late tonight to sort out details.
Even the White House today indicated that the president may have to shift his deadline.
Asked if the White House believes health care reform legislation won't get done if the August deadline is missed, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responded, "I don't think that's the case."
"I think, as the president enunciated pretty clearly yesterday, a lot doesn't tend to happen in this town without some poking and some prodding, which generally manifests itself in deadlines," Gibbs said. "This is just part of the process. We're going to come back here after the August break and still have work to do on health care."
Obama: 'Closer Than Ever Before' On Health Care Reform
This afternoon, Obama met with lawmakers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including some fiscally conservative Democrats opposed to some measures in the proposed bills, to discuss health care reform.
Obama today laid out the common points among different health care plans being debated in the House and Senate, and once again dismissed growing criticism from opponents as "familiar Washington script we've seen many times before."
"Make no mistake. We are closer than ever before to the reform that the American people need, and we're going to get the job done," Obama said in the familiar firm tone that has marked his rhetoric in recent days as health care has become his top national priority.
Hailing the support of nurses and doctors organizations on his health care plan and urging Congress to "build on the common ground and do the hard work," the president spoke about the commonalities among different bills circulating in Congress.
"We've forged a level of consensus on health care that has never been reached in the history of this country," the president said.
Obama said he wants a bill that expands coverage, improves quality and brings down costs.
He reiterated that Americans who like their current health plans will be able to keep them, a key point of criticism among those who say that a government-run insurance plan will stifle competition. The president touted the public option plan that's included in both the House Democrats' bill and the the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee bill, saying it would "keep insurance companies honest, ensuring the competition necessary to make coverage affordable."
"I am deeply invested in getting this thing done," Obama said in an interview with NBC's "Today" show Tuesday. "This isn't Washington sport, this isn't about who's up and who's down. This is about solving an enormous problem for the American people."
The president admitted that the administration still needs to figure out ways to pay the extra costs that would come with overhauling the system.
Many conservative Democrats and Republicans have rallied against a tax on the wealthy to pay for health care.
The president was noncommittal on that front, only saying that, "I think that ultimately what we're going to have is a package which will probably include some additional revenue from well-to-do people, including me and you, who can afford to pay a little bit more so that working families, people who are going to their job every single day, can have a little more security on their health care."
GOP Takes Aim At Dems Health Care Plan
Republicans have stepped up their counteroffensive, taking aim at the president and congressional Democrats in speeches around Washington and in a 30-second advertisement opposing his plan for government-run health care.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who yesterday dubbed health care plan as socialism, said today that the president is in too much of a hurry.
"It took a year and a half for us to create the Medicare system. Now we're going to do the entire health care system in two weeks or six weeks? I mean, the point is, take your time," Steele said on CBS's "Early Show."
Some administration officials have said that the opposition wants to delay the process because of a lack of proposals from their side, but Steele argued that's not the case and that lawmakers have proposed legislation on many thorny issues such as tort reform -- malpractice lawsuit reform -- which the president dismissed.
"On all of those issues, one after another, Democrats rejected each effort to strengthen our free market economy or bring about tort reform," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., on Fox News. "This is really just about launching a massive government takeover of health care and paying for it with about $1 trillion in tax increases."
It's not just Republicans raising their voices against the president's or the Democrat's plan. Even some fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats have raised opposition.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told reporters he was cancelling a drafting session on Tuesday so members could continue talking and working with Blue Dog Democrats.
"We're having conversations with different members to work out some of the issues so we can make this thing move forward," Waxman said.
As for why House Democrats are having trouble amongst themselves in crafting a health care reform bill, Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday: "There are some members on the Democrat side that got both arms broken during the cap-and-trade fight on the floor, now there're no more arms to break. That's why they're having problems."
Obama Responds to 'Waterloo' Comment
Health care has jumped to the top of Obama's agenda as an urgent national priority.
Referring to comments by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Friday that "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," the president responded: "This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy, and we can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care -- not this time, not now."
Administration officials continue to express optimism about lawmakers achieving legislation by August, but critics have ramped up their assaults, calling the deadline too hurried, and public support for the plan has also dropped.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released today, just under half of the respondents, 49 percent, said they approve of Obama's handling of health care, down 8 percent since he took office in January.
President Obama: 'What We're Doing Is Hard'
On Wednesday, Obama will hold a primetime news conference in which health care is likely to dominate, and he will then take the discussion to the masses in a town hall Thursday.
"I want this done now. Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town," the president said in an interview with PBS Monday.
When asked about the ABC News/Washington Post poll by PBS' Jim Lehrer, the president responded, "It means that what we're doing is hard and, you know, the truth is I feel pretty good about the fact that our polls have held up under extraordinarily difficult circumstances."
"There's a reason why this hasn't been done in 50 years, and that is because this is a big, complex situation -- a lot of special interests here in Washington who are very protective of the status quo," he added.
Yet, when asked whether he was confident Congress would reach agreement on a health care bill before its August recess, the president demurred.
"I think this is actually a good example of where the focus tends to be on what we haven't gotten done yet rather than what we've done," he said.
ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.