WASHINGTON — In a blow to the White House, the Senate's top Democrat signaled Tuesday that Congress might fail to meet a year-end deadline for passing health care legislation, leaving the measure's fate to the uncertainties of the 2010 election season.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., spoke as Democratic officials said it could be December before Senate debate begins in earnest on the legislation atop President Barack Obama's domestic agenda, months after senior lawmakers and the White House had hoped.
House leaders, on a somewhat faster track, pointed toward a vote this weekend on a bill to extend coverage to tens of millions who lack it, ban insurance-industry practices such as denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, and generally slow the rate of growth of medical spending nationwide. The 10-year, $1.2 trillion legislation is estimated to expand coverage to about 96 percent of eligible Americans.
The measure includes an option for consumers to purchase a government insurance plan, an attempt to put pressure on private firms.
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While Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House leaders weighed final changes to their version of the bill, Reid raised the possibility for the first time publicly that lawmakers would not be able to meet their — and Obama's — self-imposed deadline of completing work on health care by year's end.
"We're not going to be bound by any timelines. We need to do the best job we can for the American people," he said after the weekly closed-door meeting of rank-and-file Democrats.
At the White House, spokesman Dan Pfeiffer sought to put the best face on the developments.
"The House plans to vote on the health reform bill within days. Sen. Reid has committed to the president that as soon as the Senate has the information back from the (Congressional Budget Office), they will move expeditiously to pass health reform," Pfeiffer said.