WASHINGTON-"August has both peril and opportunity," said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel at the end of July as lawmakers headed to their home states. The peril, he said, was that interest groups could hijack the healthcare debate. The opportunity was in shoring up support from the center.
Now lawmakers are back in the Capitol after a month of debate on healthcare that was as hot as an August sidewalk. They've been exposed to campaigns by interest groups and lobbyists. Constituents threw tea parties. Some yelled toe-to-toe at their lawmakers in town halls-some lawmakers yelled back. Some had peaceful discussions. One man bit off another man's pinky finger during a fight over healthcare reform in California (don't worry, it was reattached).
President Obama's approval ratings dropped to 50 percent by the end of month, according to Gallup-on track to be one of the fastest drops below majority approval ratings among presidents since World War II.
So what's next? Congress has five healthcare bills floating around, with little Republican support, wobbly support from conservative House Democrats, and a host of skeptics in the Senate. President Obama will speak Wednesday to a joint session of Congress to outline what he expects to be in the reform exactly. In a speech Monday he emphasized that he still wants the public option to be a part of the bill, though other members of the administration have said that feature isn't a "deal breaker." He also has to sell the reform to the American people again.
The Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six," a coalition of three Democrats and three Republicans, is supposed to produce a bill by Sept. 15-the one bill that truly has the chance to be bipartisan, with the contributions of Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, just sent the gang a draft-which doesn't include the public option or mandated employer insurance, as other versions have. Baucus' draft would cost about $900 billion.
Obama originally set the deadline for Congress to complete reform before its August recess, ostensibly knowing how the reform could be derailed in a month of chatter. The president plans to talk things over with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Tuesday.