WASHINGTON - With polls showing public support for President Barack Obama's healthcare reform waning, Senate negotiators hit another snag on Thursday when a key Finance Committee Republican said the panel would not be ready to vote until September.
Republican Michael Enzi, one of six senators on the panel trying to strike a bipartisan deal, told reporters the measure to lower healthcare costs and expand coverage to the uninsured would not be ready for a vote before a month-long August recess begins next week.
The bill is not ready for prime time, Enzi told reporters. I don't know any way it can be completed today, or next week or before the August break.
In the House of Representatives, the Energy and Commerce Committee -- the last of three House panels to vote on healthcare reform -- began debate after striking a deal with conservative Democrats. Final approval could come on Friday.
There's plenty of common ground as we go forward on this, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. At the end of the day we have to have universal, quality affordable healthcare for all Americans. And we will do that.
The healthcare overhaul, Obama's top legislative priority in his first year, has been besieged by criticism about its cost and scope. Obama has stepped up his lobbying for passage of a measure that would rein in costs, improve care and cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans.
But as congressional discussions drag on, more Americans are voicing doubt over the reform plan, with many worried that a costly overhaul could reduce the quality of their care and limit choices of doctors.
A New York Times/CBS News poll showed 69 percent of Americans were concerned their care would suffer if they were on a government-run plan.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 42 percent of those surveyed in July thought Obama's healthcare plan was a bad idea, up from 32 percent in June.
'TWISTS AND TURNS'
Right now we're focused on moving this process forward, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. There's a lot of twists and turns left in all of this. We're trying to get the process going.
The White House and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Congress had hoped the final committees considering the measure in each chamber -- the House Energy and Senate Finance panels -- could complete deliberations before the August recess.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and other members of the panel's negotiating team had been optimistic they could announce a deal and move legislation through the committee before the Senate leaves at the end of next week.
One of the six senators involved in negotiations said on Thursday that new health cooperatives proposed under its version of the legislation could insure 12 million of the 46 million uninsured Americans.
The leading actuaries in the country tell us this cooperative model can secure 12 million members very quickly and be the third-largest insurer in the country, Democrat Kent Conrad told the NPR radio network.
So we have lots of reasons to believe this will be a successful competitor to private insurance firms, he said.
Conrad is one of three Democrats and three Republicans in the Finance Committee who have zeroed in on a plan that would use the non-profit cooperatives to compete with private insurers to drive down costs.
A government-run insurance program, favored by Obama and many of his fellow Democrats but resisted by Republicans and the insurance industry, would not pass the Senate, he said.
The White House did not comment on whether it would support a bill without a public option but said any measure would have to increase competition for insurers.
The president is not interested in and doesn't believe we'll have healthcare reform unless we have elements that provide ample choice and competition for people that are in an insurance market, Gibbs said.
Pelosi said the insurance industry, which has spent millions on lobbying Congress over the issue, were villains in the debate.
It's almost immoral what they are doing, she told reporters. They are the villains. They have been part of the problem in a major way.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Rick Cowan and Steve Holland; writing by John Whitesides; editing by Eric Beech)