"This is not a we-can-only-do one thing for America Congress,'' he said. Kerry said the bill would be introduced later this month, and that his goal was to make progress by December, when an international climate change conference convenes in Denmark.
"If people in Copenhagen know we're delayed because we're on the floor working on health care, they'll take that at face value. We just need to be making bona-fide progress,'' he said.
The federal budget, which is divided into 12 appropriations bills, is due by the end of this month, but the Senate has passed only four of the bills and none of them has been reconciled with House versions and sent to the president for his signature. If the bills aren't passed, Congress will probably approve short-term extensions of the current budget.
Oberstar has feuded with the White House over the timing of the transportation bill, which would set policy for the next six years and sharply increase highway, rail, and transit funding. In an interview, he said it was urgent to pass the bill this year. The Obama administration has recommended a temporary 18-month extension of the current policy instead, and the Senate has not taken up the bill.
Putting issues aside until next year would move debate to the middle of the campaign for the midterm congressional elections, Oberstar warned, which would make it more difficult to pass sweeping legislation or approve potentially controversial ideas like a gas tax increase, which some lawmakers say is necessary.
Oberstar attributed some of the delays to Senate rules that allow the minority Republicans to significantly delay or thwart legislation, a power House Republicans lack.
But other lawmakers were more optimistic about the chances of moving on to other major priorities this fall. Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said that he was planning to go ahead with a major overhaul of financial regulations.
"The health care debate is not in any way stopping me from going forward with the bill,'' he said.
He pointed to the decision by his Senate counterpart, Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, to remain on the banking panel as evidence that Congress could successfully juggle health care and other priorities.
"The fact that Chris is staying shows that it's not a case where we're getting eclipsed,'' he said.
Frank also pointed out that the congressional calendar was extended from the targeted adjournment date of Oct. 30 potentially until Christmas this year, meaning that there will be more time to address issues other than health care.
"It's going to take longer,'' he said, "but we have longer.'