Despite big setback, Dems say healthcare reform is not dead

Congressional Democrats reeling from Tuesday’s historic Senate special election are insisting that healthcare reform is not dead.

But on Wednesday, for the first time in the 111th Congress, Democrats acknowledged they are not certain how they will get a bill to the president’s desk.

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The dilemma is unlikely to be solved this week.

Like a dazed boxer taking an eight-count, Democrats say they need time to recover from the devastating blow they suffered when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley on Tuesday.

They made clear on Wednesday, however, that they are not giving up.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on CNBC Wednesday that healthcare reform is “not dead by any means.”

Clyburn made a direct reference to budget reconciliation, a parliamentary maneuver allowing Democrats to sidestep the filibuster rules in the Senate requiring 60 votes to move forward with a piece of legislation.

“I have always said that the magic number on healthcare reform is 50, not 60,” he said. “And I do believe that we will have a healthcare reform bill, and we will have one that the American people can be proud of.”

Reconciliation is within the arsenal of options at Democrats’ disposal as they weigh how to proceed next. One scenario under consideration would have

House Democrats pass the Senate bill as is, paired with a separate bill formed under reconciliation rules carving out changes to the healthcare bill that House and Senate Democrats had previously negotiated.

Two key labor groups, the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, moved toward backing such a strategy on Wednesday.

Asked on Wednesday whether he was confident a healthcare reform bill would pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded: “I am confident that healthcare is an issue in this country and we’re going to do everything we can to alleviate the pain and suffering of people who can’t afford healthcare and who want to maintain what they have.”

Senate Democrats claim they are essentially in a holding pattern until the House takes action, saying the onus is on the lower chamber.

“We are, at this point, we’ll be looking to see what the mood of the House is and what they want to do,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership team.

“The most logical [option] is for us to put that onerous duty on the House so that we don’t have to vote on it again over here, since we obviously can’t pass it over here,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “However, that’s a hard thing to put on the House,” he added. “It’s easy for a senator to say, ‘Oh, well, just have the House pass it.’ ”

After months of trying to move a healthcare reform measure as quickly as possible, House Democratic leaders got a clear message on Wednesday from liberals and centrists alike: Don’t rush this.

“Full steam ahead is off the table,” declared Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), a member of the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Coalition. “We’re still in the exercise of drawing meaning from the public’s disquiet.”

“We want to go where the will of the public is,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) allies in selling the merits of the House leadership position to different factions within the caucus. “We want people to make the right decision, not the quick one.”

For the time being, Pelosi and her team seem to have adopted that strategy, either explicitly or by default.

Pelosi met with various House Democratic groups on Wednesday to solicit their input. She was mostly listening, not talking, sources said.

As Wednesday wore on, House leaders began opening up to a number of options, including an incremental approach to healthcare reform, though nothing has been decided.

“Everything is on the table,” caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) repeated over and over again Wednesday afternoon.

Andrews said any of the possible outcomes “will be a byproduct of listening to our members who are listening to their constituents,” a process he admitted will take time.

Yet there is a sense among Democrats that if healthcare reform is going to move, it has to move over the next several weeks because of the need to shift away from controversial issues months before the November election.

Blue Dogs, including Pomeroy and Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who is on Pelosi’s leadership team, both shot down reconciliation, saying it amounted to legislative trickery. And both cast doubt on the ability to pass the Senate bill unchanged and send it directly to President Barack Obama.

“I don’t think that’s a viable strategy,” Pomeroy said.

Blue Dog members believe that such an approach would hurt them in their 2010 reelection races. Some in the coalition prefer passing healthcare reform in parts.

Meanwhile, Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders met Wednesday morning to regroup and mull over how to finish their work on healthcare reform.

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Echoing those House Democrats seeking to slow down before beginning to move forward again, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) urged lawmakers to assess the situation before gearing back up. “Everyone’s coming up with all sorts of solutions, but I don’t know if anyone has one yet. Let’s just step back, take a day or two here, let things settle a bit,” said Dodd, who ushered an early version of the bill through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who opposed using reconciliation for the entire healthcare bill, said, “If the House passed the Senate bill, could reconciliation, that process, be used to fix things that might be improved upon? Yes. Would I support it? I can’t know that without knowing what would be included in the package.”

“Reconciliation is one of the things that we need to look at with the change in circumstances,” Reid said.
 
Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.