The health care reform bill has taken a pit stop

Welcome to the separation of powers. The health care reform bill - the vehicle on the journey to universal health care - has taken a pit stop.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. and majority leader, signaled as much Thursday during his press conference. It will take longer than two weeks for the Senate to reconcile two Senate bills and attract at least some Republicans to health care reform, which is, in truth, arguably, the biggest and most complex social policy addressed by the Congress since the Medicare Act of 1965.

And President Obama, who had ardently pushed lawmakers to pass a bill by the time the Senate recesses on August 7, is now resigned to the reality of a health care reform bill in September, after Congress' vacation. The president, at a town hall meeting in Shaker Heights, Ohio, after visiting the renowned Cleveland Clinic, is comfortable with a September bill, saying if it helps garner more support for health care reform, the result will amount to an even better policy for the nation.

'Time may change me...

For those investors who were unaware of the process before, this is how Washington works: slowly. Very slowly. Here, a powerful U.S. president with majorities in both chambers of Congress, and with a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority in the Senate, has been delayed, if not stopped, by maybe eight or 10 senators. Reid, an accurate head-counter of just how many votes the Dems have - or do not have - in the Senate, announced, in so many words, that the votes to make the bill pass overwhelmingly - were not there. Besides, it's getting close to August. See you on Martha's Vineyard. The Senate will resume its regularly-scheduled business during the second week of September or so, post installation of new status-tans from their summer sunbathing, and vacations, and junkets.

There's no other political system like this in the world - one where a large majority elects a national executive and a legislative chamber to implement reform, and the other legislative chamber can stop it in its tracks. Add powerful stakeholders to an issue and you can see why it's so hard to implement reforms in the United States. President Obama said Washington's default position is inertia, and he's correct: as the health care issue demonstrates, it takes a powerful, popular majority to change the status quo in Washington, and even then, one minor misstep, and the opportunity can vanish.

Further, now that Sen. Reid has determined that more time will be needed to introduce a health care reform bill that has as large a consensus as possible, don't look for the House of Representatives to vote on their version of the bill until September as well. That's because if they approve a bill, with an income tax increase, and the Senate then balks, House members will have exposed themselves to the electoral pain of health care reform, for no gain. Yikes! In electoral politics, that's absurd, so you won't see the House voting on a bill until they know the Senate will: either both chambers bear some pain, or neither will. That's another rule of life inside the beltway.

...but I can't trace time'

Health care reform is not being delayed because corporate health care premium costs will decrease without it; (they won't). The issue is not being delayed because health care suddenly will become affordable for the 45 million or so who don't have it; (it won't). The issue is being delayed because Sen. Reid, and probably a few other powerful senators, want a broader coalition than those who are in favor of the bill at this juncture. That's more than enough to delay any legislation, let alone one as important to the nation's economic and fiscal well being - and the physical well being of all Americans, for that matter - as health care reform.

It's been said often that the wheels of justice grind slowly. Sometimes, the U.S. Congress can grind even slower.

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Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is writing a book on the U.S. presidency and the U.S. economy.

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