WASHINGTON -- Even as the Senate took a break from health care reform to debate crime, some Democratic members privately have joined Republicans in calling for a delay in the health debate, according to White House and congressional sources.
The sources said yesterday that Majority Leader George J. Mitchell is likely to grant a recess -- possibly starting later this week and lasting until after the Labor Day Weekend -- if he can get commitments from at least 60 senators that they will vote to enact major legislation upon their return. Sixty votes would be needed to overcome any filibuster delaying tactics.
Many reform-minded members, however, are warning that a significant break in the health care debate would sap any remaining momentum from the drive to enact major legislation before Congress adjourns in early October.
"If we go home, health care is dead," said Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn.
"I think he's right," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va. "I say, let's not go home. Let's go forward."
Mr. Mitchell also did not budge from his public stance that the current debate over the crime bill is all the respite that the Senate will get from consideration of health reform.
But Democratic senators said yesterday that the sentiment is growing for a hiatus. The Senate was to have begun a monthlong recess in mid-August, but it was canceled by Mr. Mitchell.
Senators cited several reasons for the growing clamor for a break -- most notably the strong desire to return home to campaign for re-election. One third of the Senate seats are up for election.
"There are also a lot of people who have made non-refundable family vacation plans and can't afford to lose it," said one senator.
Until now, only Republicans have called for a recess, led by Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas. Mr. Dole last Thursday also told a group of friendly lobbyists during a hallway encounter that he was searching for "hard votes . . . on the other (Democratic) side so we can kill the Mitchell bill and go home."
On Sunday, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," also raised the possibility of a break.
Noting that the Senate had engaged in nearly two weeks of desultory debate on health care reform with no real progress, the Finance Committee chairman said:
"Now maybe it's time to break and see if we can't put together a bill that has enough of the common ingredients of the various groups to get 60 votes."
That suggestion was said to be "gaining traction" in the Senate yesterday, a top White House official said.
The House already has put off its health care debate indefinitely, with Democratic leaders there citing the delay in getting analysis of the various reform proposals from the Congressional Budget Office.
Some Democratic senators raised the possibility of a recess yesterday during a private meeting, and when Mr. Mitchell was asked about it, "the look in his eyes was perplexing," said one pro-reform senator who was there.
Also in private yesterday, various groups of senators met to discuss the latest reform proposal, offered Friday by a bipartisan group of about 20 members as an alternative to Mr. Mitchell's bill.