PUBLIC WORKS News Service - The pitched battle over a national health care plan is inflicting collateral damage on other legislation in Congress, with some lawmakers and advocates arguing that it has sidetracked action on other urgent priorities.
Representative Jim Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, wants to pass a law this year to jump-start highway and transit construction but, like many of his colleagues, has been stymied while the health care debate continues to rage well past the original summer deadline.
"It's taking the White House's time and attention. It's taking House and Senate leadership time and attention,'' he said. Meanwhile, he lamented, "we're ready to go.''
In addition to Oberstar's bill, which would determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal transportation money is spent over the next six years, sweeping legislation on climate change and financial regulation overhaul has been delayed amid the ongoing health care debate, which some analysts and lawmakers now predict may take the rest of the year or longer to complete.
"That's one cost of the health care debate dragging on,'' said Sarah Binder, a congressional analyst at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's not that Congress can't multitask. They probably can, but for big controversial issues there are only so many they can focus on.''
Given months to forge a bipartisan consensus, Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced his health care bill last week without any Republican support - and his plan immediately drew criticism from both parties. Even if a bill passes his committee, the legislation would need to be combined with bills from the Senate Health Committee, pass a floor vote, and survive negotiations between House and Senate versions of the bill - a tortuous process that will probably take precious time and muscle away from other legislation.
David Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said he was optimistic that the climate change legislation the group is backing would be completed this fall, but acknowledged that squeezing in a vote between debates on budget bills and health care could pose a challenge.
"Floor time is a different issue,'' he said. "We expect with everything that is still on the plate in Congress, that it's going to be a very long fall.''
The Democratic lawmakers drafting other domestic legislation all back the health care measures and are loath to offer any criticisms of the Senate's handling of the bill. But the impact of the drawn-out debate has been clear: After Democrats passed a torrent of legislation during the spring on pay equality, credit card reforms, and economic stimulus measures, their output has slowed as the health care fight intensified.
The House passed a climate change bill in June, but so far the Senate has not acted. Senators John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California were expected to introduce the Senate version earlier this month, but that announcement was pushed back.
In an interview with the Globe, Kerry denied reports that the legislation had been pushed back to accommodate the health care debate. Instead, he said his hip surgery and the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in August had caused the delay.