Leaders Assess Health Reform Options

Posted January 20, 2010 at 6:51pm

Democratic leaders scrambled Wednesday to salvage at least a chunk of their health care reform package following the shattering of their 60-vote Senate supermajority in the Massachusetts special election.

Two competing ideas were emerging in the House by the end of the day. In one scenario, Democrats would push a second bill through using budget reconciliation rules that would “fix— the Senate health care bill sitting on the House’s desk.

Such a bill would need just 51 votes in the Senate. The House would not take up the Senate package unless Senators clear the reconciliation bill.

That idea was floated in closed-door meetings by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who spent the day holed up with various factions of her Caucus. That route may be the only way to preserve the larger Democratic goal of achieving near-universal coverage, given overwhelming opposition in the House to passing the Senate bill as is.

“It’s obvious that there is not sufficient support to pass the bill in its present form,— Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said.

A competing idea gaining traction among some Members of leadership and especially among junior Members would start over with a new bill or bills focusing on politically popular insurance reforms that have broad support on the Hill, like doing away with pre-existing conditions and eliminating antitrust protections for insurance companies.

President Barack Obama weighed in during an ABC interview, suggesting that Democrats “coalesce— around reforms that everyone can support, appearing to nod toward a scaled-back effort — although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on CNN that passing the Senate bill was still a possibility.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said a new bill could be constructed to respond to the voters. “I think that’s a reasonable alternative,— Hoyer said of Obama’s comments. “Given where we are, given the public’s concern, I think that we ought to focus on what we think the public can support and will be positive in making health care more affordable and obtainable. You could do it in a number of ways. You could do it in an individual, new bill.—

But House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said he hadn’t heard discussions of starting over with a new bill. “We could fly to the moon, too,— he said.

Indeed, Democrats repeatedly cautioned that they weren’t sure what to do in the wake of the Republican Scott Brown’s stunning upset in the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday.

“There is no plan,— said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, after meeting with Pelosi on Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), one of a group of about 25 sophomore “majority makers— who met with Pelosi and other House leaders, said they suggested moving forward with things “that are almost universally popular. … The idea seems to be gaining steam.—

Walz said leaders seemed more realistic Wednesday about what was doable than they were Tuesday night, when they were discussing “pie in the sky— options.

Walz said the idea of pushing through a bill under reconciliation “wasn’t real popular among the sophomore class.—

“There’s a real sense of realism here,— he said.

Walz said that it has been hard to defend a 2,000-page bill. “I don’t think the message has gotten out of how this is going to help people,— he said.

Meanwhile, Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said the Senate bill would have to be “cleaned up a heck of a lot— before she could vote for it, “with all that Nebraska junk— and other pork-barrel items tossed out.

Senate Democratic leaders, meanwhile, moved cautiously to reassess the political terrain while considering their options on health care.

From Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his team to rank-and-file Democratic Members — both liberal and moderate — there was an overriding consensus to wait for the House to act, and to allow Brown to be seated, before making any decisions on how to proceed. Forcing the Democrats to change course is Brown’s pending installation, which will provide the Republicans with the vote they previously lacked to sustain a filibuster.

Using reconciliation rules to get a bill to Obama’s desk remains an option, Senate Democratic leaders confirmed. But whether the procedure becomes necessary depends largely on what happens in the House. In the interim, Senate Democrats are itching to pivot to jobs and the economy as they prepare to face the voters in November.

However, senior Democratic Senate sources made clear Wednesday that the leadership’s intention is to complete health care reform before shifting attention to the economy and pushing for a jobs bill — even though there was anything but clarity on what to do next.

“If there was one message I got from the leadership meeting I held [Wednesday] morning and the caucus [lunch] I just had, it is the fact that we’re concerned with everything going on in the country and we’re not going to rush to judgment on any one of them,— Reid told reporters, when asked how Democrats planned to move forward on health care.

“I think we ought to pause a day or two to think about it, and let the dust settle a little bit before we come out with a declarative strategy,— added liberal Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

Brown vowed during his campaign to be the 41st Republican vote in the Senate to kill health care reform and send it back to the drawing board, and he opposes Obama’s proposal to tax certain banks and institutions that have received federal bailout money.

But despite Brown’s victory, moderate Senate Democrats were not prepared to abandon the health care reform effort — including those who hail from states where the Democratic legislation has received poor marks in public polling.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) remains supportive of the $871 billion Senate package, even though an Omaha World-Herald poll taken Jan. 8-12 revealed that 60 percent of registered voters in the state dislike the legislation. Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) also maintain their support, as do other moderate and centrist Democrats.

“I voted for the Senate health care reform bill, so obviously I think it’s good enough to have voted for and I think it has a lot of good things in it,— Lieberman said. “If the decision is made to take the Senate bill and ask the House to adopt it, I’m on record in favor of the Senate bill and I’ll stand by that.—

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.