by Donna Smith

Last Updated: 2009-03-19 13:21:09 -0400 (Reuters Health)

Congress must enact a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system by the end of this year or risk waiting at least another four years to get the job done, a senior Republican senator said on Thursday.

Charles Grassley, who as the Senate Finance Committee’s top Republican will help write healthcare legislation, acknowledged that some senators suggest putting off the overhaul while lawmakers grapple with the financial crisis.

But he said such a move could sink the revamp of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry that President Barack Obama said is essential to promote long-term U.S. economic growth.

"If it isn’t done this year, it won’t be done for the next four years," Grassley told reporters at a briefing, saying election politics will put off any meaningful action.

Republicans are looking to next year’s congressional elections to win back some seats lost to Democrats last year. After that, Democrats and Republicans will begin political maneuvering for the 2012 presidential elections.

Grassley said he is optimistic that Congress will act this year on a bipartisan overhaul of the healthcare industry that Obama has said is needed to rein in soaring costs that are crippling U.S. global competitiveness and to provide coverage to 46 million uninsured Americans.

It is a giant legislative undertaking and already Republicans and Democrats are split on a central issue of whether a government plan should be one of the insurance options available to consumers.

Grassley said compromise on that issue will be difficult.

Democrats want it as an option, arguing that the competition will hold down private insurance premiums. Republicans counter that a public plan would drive private insurers out of the market, eventually leaving the United States with a government-run healthcare system.

The Senate’s Finance Committee is working with its Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee headed by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy to get healthcare legislation to the Senate floor by July.

House of Representative committees are working to get a House vote on legislation by the time lawmakers break for a month-long recess in August.

If lawmakers can stick to that schedule, it would give the two bodies plenty of time to work out their differences and send a bill to Obama by the end of the year.