(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The first formal drafting and voting session on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's sweeping legislation was given over Wednesday to six hours of speechmaking by senators. Nothing was accomplished on the bill itself, and there were suggestions that a goal of completing committee action before the congressional recess July 4 might not be met.
A separate and even more critical Senate committee delayed its own voting timeline as lawmakers struggled to slash costs to under $1 trillion over 10 years.
If things keep going the way they did Wednesday, it doesn't bode well for President Barack Obama's goal of signing legislation this fall to rein in spiraling health costs and extend care to 50 million uninsured Americans.
"This is the first time that I had to kind of say we haven't met a deadline," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the key Senate Finance Committee.
The Finance Committee was supposed to release draft legislation Wednesday and begin voting on it next week. But the committee announced that votes would wait, possibly until after July 4, as senators sought to retool their proposals to cut the cost by more than one-third, from an initial $1.6 trillion to less than $1 trillion.
Of the five major panels, including Kennedy's, working on health care, Finance has the best odds of coming up with a bipartisan proposal that could overcome gathering opposition.
"We'll be ready when we're ready, but we're not there yet," said Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.
With Kennedy absent from the Capitol after a diagnosis of brain cancer, his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee met under the leadership of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. Senators were considering a bill topping 600 pages, plus 388 amendments, but with the most contentious issues -- whether to create a new public plan to compete with the private market, and whether to require employers to cover their workers -- still unwritten.
The legislation would create a new insurance marketplace where people could shop for coverage plans with help from government subsidies.
As written, it costs some $1 trillion but still leaves 37 million people uninsured, and Republicans are deeply skeptical. The health committee is scheduled to meet daily and was supposed to finalize the bill by the end of next week, but after Wednesday's session Dodd backed away from that deadline.
"We'll see how it goes. I'm interested in getting this done but I'm interested in getting it right," Dodd said. "I'm not time-driven to the point where at all cost that has to be done that day."
Committee hearings in the House are set to begin next week.