WASHINGTON — Frustrated with the pace of bipartisan talks, Democratic leaders on Monday promised to push a sweeping health care bill through the Senate whether they get Republican support or not.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Senate Democrat, raised the prospect of the leadership crafting a bill to Democratic specifications and using a rare legislative procedure to expedite legislation fulfilling President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
"We will have contingencies in place. These plans will likely be considered as a last resort, but they are on the table," Schumer told reporters on a conference call. He declined to elaborate.
After numerous delays, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee are facing a Sept. 15 deadline to wrap up secretive talks and come up with a plan.
"If we cannot produce a bipartisan solution by then you have to wonder if the Republicans will ever to be willing to agree to anything," Schumer said.
Four House and Senate committees have already approved sweeping health care bills, but none has attracted a single Republican vote. That makes it unlikely or impossible that they could attract the 60 votes necessary to advance in the 100-seat Senate.
Schumer said Democratic leaders continue to look at invoking a procedural maneuver that would allow them to pass the health bill with 51 instead of 60 votes. That route is viewed as a last resort since it limits what legislative measures would be allowed and any broad policy initiatives would probably have to be limited.
Schumer wouldn't say what other contingencies were being considered. On the same call, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., accused Republican leaders of trying to hinder bipartisan progress to deny President Barack Obama a political victory.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scoffed at Schumer's complaints. He noted that Schumer himself hasn't committed to supporting whatever the Finance negotiators produce and that other Democrats have also criticized the plan that's taking shape.
"Seriously. How can any Democrat who doesn't support what the bipartisan group of Finance members is working on complain about there not being a bipartisan approach," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. "Has Senator Schumer or anyone in the Democrat leadership offered a bipartisan bill?"
Schumer and many other liberals favor a strong new government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers, and all the plans passed so far have included that. But Republicans nearly uniformly oppose a new public plan, saying it would drive private insurers out of business, so the Finance negotiators are looking at a system of nonprofit health co-ops instead.
Schumer said negotiations on the Finance bill were continuing.
"No one's drawing any lines in the sand right now but I feel very strongly we need a public option and that fight is continuing," he said.
The Finance Committee negotiators planned to resume their talks Monday under the leadership of Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. The Senate leaves Friday for a monthlong recess. The House began its break last Friday.