Decision time looming for new Democratic healthcare strategy

As prospects for sweeping healthcare reform dim, Democrats say they expect to have a clearer view of what their options are in the coming days.
 
For now, the general consensus is for the party to calm down and think the matter through.
 

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats should “let the dust settle” before making any decisions. Senior Senate Democrats such as Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) urged lawmakers to take “a couple days to cool off.” And House Democrats such as Robert Andrews (N.J.), who chairs a healthcare subcommittee, predicted his leaders would decide on a strategy by the end of next week even as he said any new movement on legislation would “take awhile.”
 
“We have to know what our possibilities are and that means in both houses and with the White House,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.
 
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the leadership team, said deciding on the process should not take long. “That doesn't mean we're going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs for weeks and weeks and weeks, but it'll take a few days to figure out what the best solution is,” he said.
 
Democrats could be stalling as they confront the possibility of failure, but Pelosi and others refused to declare the effort finished.
 
“One way or another, those areas of agreement that we have will have to be advanced,” Pelosi said, “whether it’s by passing the Senate bill with any changes that can be made or just taking pieces of it. “
 
The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race has made it all but impossible for Senate Democrats to move another healthcare bill through their chamber. Pelosi said Thursday her members will not support the Senate-passed bill.
 
And despite talk of passing a scaled-down bill or breaking healthcare reform into small pieces, even those alternatives, favored by some House Democrats, would face the same 41-vote Republican filibuster in the Senate.
 
Obama has yet to make a strong public case for what he thinks the Congress should do next, beyond signaling a day after the special election that a smaller measure might be doable. But the message from the White House has been mixed as the president’s senior aides maintain he still wants to sign major healthcare reform legislation.
 
Obama could seize the moment during his State of the Union address Wednesday night and make a declaration that he will rededicate himself to getting his signature domestic policy initiative accomplished, a proclamation Democrats in Congress may find difficult — though not impossible — to completely ignore. Democratic lawmakers, however, said this week that Obama should make the economy his primary focus.
 
“Obviously, there’s not full coordination on all of this and I think we need to get that and have our thoughts together,” Rockefeller said.
 
A stronger guiding hand from Obama hardly guarantees rank-and-file Democrats will fall into line, said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif).
 
Obama’s “view is very important to everyone, but we have our view in the House and the Senate doesn’t necessarily go along with us,” Waxman said. “The Senate has its view and we don’t necessarily go along with them.”
 
There is an overarching sense among Democrats that they need to demonstrate to the public they are doing more to address the sagging economy and dismal unemployment situation. Adding to that pressure are polls showing only a minority of the public supports healthcare reform.
 
But labor unions and liberal interest groups such as MoveOn.org are pressuring Democrats not to retreat.
 
Even healthcare industry groups would not be unanimously pleased to see the bill go down after expending immense resources to shape it. Not only would they lose out on the chance to serve tens of millions of new paying customers and the possibility of a more stable and predictable healthcare system, they would have to worry the Medicare spending cuts in the bill will remain on the table even if plans to expand insurance coverage are taken off.