So much for the August deadline

SO MUCH FOR THE AUGUST DEADLINE…. The writing, it seems, was on the wall. Yesterday, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) signaled that a pre-recess vote on health care reform was unlikely, with members preferring to “take a little longer to get it right.” Even President Obama started talking more about getting this done “this year,” rather than “by August.”

Today, it became official.

The top Democrat in the Senate says lawmakers won’t vote until after August on health care, a blow to President Barack Obama’s ambitious timetable.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday the Finance Committee will act on its portion of the bill before Congress’ monthlong break. Then Reid will merge that bill with separate legislation already passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The Nevada Democrat says the decision to delay a vote was made Wednesday night in the hopes of getting a final bipartisan bill.

Remember, the Republican strategy, which they’ve openly acknowledged, has been to force the delay in order to improve their chances of killing the bill. Conservatives and other opponents of reform will see this as a tactical victory, and evidence that the larger effort is in peril. It will be up to Democrats and reform advocates to prove them wrong.

Jonathan Cohn noted a couple of weeks ago that the recess is made up of four long weeks “in which special interests can bang away at legislation, running ads and ginning up grassroots opposition. They’re going to do that anyway, of course, even if Congress meets the deadline. But it’ll be a lot harder to kill reform altogether if bills have already passed each house and all that awaits is Conference Committee negotiations.”

What’s more, the post-recess session will be, for lack of a better word, busy. The White House has said all along it expects a bill out of Congress by October. After senators return from the recess, setting aside weeks of debate for health care reform will be very difficult. And no one seems to believe the effort will have any chance if it’s pushed off until 2010.

At this point, Reid is counting on the Finance Committee to at least get its work done before the chamber breaks, at which point the unpleasant task of combining the Finance and HELP bills can begin in earnest.