WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats alone cannot pass President Barack Obama's ambitious overhaul of how Americans receive health care, a top lawmaker acknowledged on Sunday. Republicans said they will continue their opposition to a plan they say is simply a government takeover of private decisions.
Both sides said they want to improve the system and provide care for almost 50 million Americans who lack health insurance coverage, but they remain deeply divided over how to reach that goal. Republicans said the longer the delay, the more the public understands the stakes of a policy that has vexed lawmakers for decades.
"Republicans want to protect the right of Americans to make their own health care decisions, to pick their own doctors and their own plans," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said. "We could have a plan in a few weeks if the goal is not a government takeover. We've never seen the government operate a plan of any kind effectively and at the budgets we talked about."
Democrats countered that their plans — and there are many iterations on Capitol Hill, as committees in both the House and Senate work on versions — would expand coverage without adding to the deficit. Even so, they are likely to leave for an August recess without a vote.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said they are "80 percent" in agreement on what a final version will include and are making progress.
In separate interviews, Obama adviser David Axelrod used the same line, underscoring the White House's desire to paint the missed deadline as a hiccup rather than a hurdle.
"Now, we're at the final 20 percent and we're trying to work through those details," Axelrod said during one appearance.
During another, he added: "We're less interested in hard deadlines than in moving the process forward. The deadlines have had a disciplining effect. ... What we don't want is for the process to bog down here. We want to keep moving forward, and I believe we will."
That final piece, however, will require GOP backing — something Sen. Mitch McConnell said was unlikely. The Senate minority leader said congressional Democrats are having difficulty selling a health care bill to their own members.
"The only thing bipartisan about the measure so far is the opposition to it," said McConnell, R-Ky.
It's a reality a key Democratic senator acknowledged. Even though the Democrats enjoy a majority in the Senate, some are skittish about the financial or political costs of the proposals.
"Look, there are not the votes for Democrats to do this just on our side of the aisle," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the powerful budget committee.
Or even their side of the Capitol.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat and a member of the fiscally conservative "Blue Dogs," said he doubts the Democratic-controlled House could pass a proposal.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "David Axelrod is right; we have agreement on 70 or 80 percent of the legislation, but it is important we get the other details right, too."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, insisted she has the votes in her chamber to move forward with the plan despite the same concerns among fiscally conservative fellow Democrats.
"When I take this bill to the floor, it will win. We will move forward, it will happen," Pelosi said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led her husband's failed health care push in 1993, said Obama has made a convincing case for an overhaul.
"He's waded right into it. And I am somewhat encouraged by what I see happening in the Congress. You know, I've been there. I know how hard this is," said Clinton, a one-time Obama rival.
"I think that the time has come. I think this president is committed to it. I think the leadership in Congress understands we have to do something. And I, I think we'll get it done."
DeMint and Conrad spoke with ABC's "This Week." Gibbs appeared on "Fox News Sunday." Axelrod appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" and CNN's "State of the Union. Cooper appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation." McConnell and Pelosi also were interviewed for CNN's "State of the Union." Clinton appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."