Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin recently was asked if a national healthcare bill would pass the Senate by the end of the year. "It must," Durbin responded. "We have to finish it."
Many other top Democrats share Durbin's determination to meet this deadline. But it's almost certainly not going to happen, for three reasons: the calendar, the Senate's other business and, most important, growing public opposition to the health bill itself.
Start with the calendar. No matter what Durbin says, there isn't enough time to get a bill of the scope and complexity of the 2,074-page Senate proposal — only unveiled on Nov. 18 — finished by New Year's.
There are 14 workdays between the Senate's return from its Thanksgiving break to the beginning of the traditional Christmas-New Year's holiday — 14 days to debate, amend, and vote on the biggest piece of legislation in a generation.
Even if the Senate were to work some weekends and part of the holidays to add a few days to the legislative calendar, there won't be enough time to deal with the amendments senators will propose. It won't just be Republicans trying to slow things down; there will be Democrats making changes, too. Say Senator X believes some provision in the bill will have a negative effect on his state. He'll need to be able to tell voters that he looked out for them. "They're all going to need their CYA amendments," says one well-connected Republican Senate aide.
Then there will be the Republican amendments. GOP lawmakers will introduce amendments to challenge some of the bill's fundamentals: the giant cuts in Medicare spending, the array of new and higher taxes, the coerciveness of the bill's mandates and the intimidating new powers given to healthcare bureaucrats. "We probably won't have one comprehensive alternative," Republican Sen. Charles Grassley told reporters. "We'll probably have a lot of different subsection amendments."
That takes time. But even if it were possible to get it done by year's end, health care is still just one of many things the Senate has to do. There are several appropriations bills that remain undone; a debt-ceiling agreement has to be reached; and some parts of both the Patriot Act and the highway bill need extending. (Never mind the distraction of the Afghanistan troop debate.) It all has to get done — or at least kicked down the road — by the end of the year. Even kicking them down the road will take time.
"It would take probably from now 'til Christmas to do all of those issues, to deal with all of those measures that we should be dealing with," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week. Instead, McConnell said, the Senate is racing to meet a "manufactured deadline."
But the biggest problem for Democrats, by far, is that public support for the bill is slowly and steadily falling. According to Pollster.com, the average of all the polls done on health care as of Nov. 30 shows 48.7 percent of Americans opposed to the bill, and 39.5 percent in favor. The gap between disapproval and approval has never been bigger.
The reason the Democratic leadership and the White House are rushing to pass the bill is that they know it is killing them and believe doing it quickly will kill fewer of them than doing it slowly. If they pass it by year's end, perhaps voters will move on to other concerns by the November 2010 midterm elections.
The thinking leaves Republicans baffled. Have Democrats not heard of the stimulus? It has been law for months now, and voter anger about it is growing, not diminishing. "The stimulus is a lesson on doing a huge bill all at once in a hurry," says the GOP aide. "It's a mistake."
Despite all the obstacles, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could attempt to cut off debate and force a vote before New Year's. But it's a big gamble, especially if all the Democratic concerns about the bill haven't been addressed. Reid has won a few and lost a few such gambles in the past.
Recently, freshman Sen. Michael Bennet said he would vote for health care even if he knew it would cost him his seat. The question Reid and Durbin face now is: How many other Democrats would do the same?
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.