Delay is rarely good for politicians trying to pass legislation. The possibility that Congress might not complete action on a major U.S. health care bill this year is another frustration for President Obama and his allies.
Even if it does not sink the health care effort, a delay would raise new uncertainties and push other domestic priorities further back. It also would give opponents a chance to pick off anxious Democratic lawmakers eyeing their November 2010 re-election campaigns.
Even some House Democrats with safe seats do not like the idea of voting on a contentious bill until it is clear that the Senate will follow suit.
Obama has swallowed one disappointing postponement already this year, when the House and Senate failed to move separate bills before the August recess. Opponents used that lull to rip into the proposed health care changes in raucous public forums.
Democrats are unlikely to be caught off guard again if the legislative battle goes past the Christmas-New Year's break. But any delay gives opponents more time to organize and campaign.
The new questions were raised Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, told reporters that he could not promise a health care package would pass this year.
"We're not going to be bound by any timelines," Reid said. "We're going to do this legislation as expeditiously as we can, but we're going to do it as fairly as we can."
A couple of hours later, Reid spokesman Jim Manley issued a more upbeat statement.
"Our goals remain unchanged," Manley said. "We want to get health insurance reform done this year, and we have unprecedented momentum to achieve that. There is no reason why we can't have a transparent and thorough debate in the Senate and still send a bill to the president by Christmas."
White House officials played down Reid's comments.
"We're moving on the same timeline," spokesman Reid Cherlin said. "The House plans to vote on the health reform bill within days, and as Sen. Reid said today, he shares the White House's commitment to passing meaningful reform by Christmas."
Cherlin said senators would move swiftly once the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office finishes its review of Senate proposals.
Any setback for Obama and the Democrats would raise troubling memories of President Clinton's failure to enact health care legislation in 1993-94 and the subsequent Republican takeover of Congress.
Reid eventually will send the bill to the Senate floor, where weeks of debate and efforts to amend it could ensue. At crucial junctures, Reid will have to muster 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to advance the bill.
The House could move a significantly different bill as early as this weekend.