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The Need For Speed

Philip Elliott of the Associated Press reports, "Legislation to overhaul the nation's health systems is unlikely to make it through the House and Senate before the August target set by President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders, lawmakers said Sunday." At Politico, Carrie Budoff Brown reaches a similar conclusion:

Health care reform proponents are growing pessimistic that they can meet President Barack Obama’s August target for passing a bill — saying the next four weeks must fall together perfectly, without a hitch or a hiccup.

The number of weeks that’s happened recently? Zero.

A series of setbacks has made the task of completing floor votes in both chambers virtually insurmountable, given the plodding pace of the Senate. The official line from the White House and the congressional leadership is it’s possible, but privately, there are a dwindling number of aides who would put money on it.

I've certainly heard similar skepticism. And I wouldn't wager money that this gets done by August.

On the other hand, there are plenty of key players still pushing hard to get it done before the recess--even if that means having Congress work longer weeks and, come August, holding one or both houses in session a few extra days.

According to the official schedule, the House is supposed to adjourn of Friday, July 31, while the Senate is supposed to adjourn on Friday, August 7. Predictably, the House seems more likely to meet its deadline than the Senate. But House members, having already passed an energy bill on their own, are none too eager to get out in front of the Senate again.

Why the rush? The key issue--well, one key issue--is what happens over recess. That's four long weeks in which special interests can bang away at legislation, running ads and ginning up grassroots opposition. They're going to do that anyway, of course, even if Congress meets the deadline. But it'll be a lot harder to kill reform altogether if bills have already passed each houes and all that awaits is Conference Comittee negotiations.

One thing to keep in mind: Obama is back in Washington this week. And meeting that August deadline is, by all accounts, a priority that matters a lot to him personally.

It's not coincidence that, while he was in Europe last week, the reform effort seemed to stall a bit. You can't underestimate the impact of having the presdient's time and focused attention--and how it changes the behavior of key players, such as the labor leaders Obama is meeting at the White House early this afternoon.

It's safe to assume he'll be pushing the timetable hard, with them and everybody else he's meeting this week. That should make at least some difference, although whether it's enough remains to be seen.

Update: After a meeting at the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed, "We are going to do health care before we leave [for August].” Amazing what a little presidential attention can do, isn't it?

--Jonathan Cohn