Democrats Conflicted on Next Steps for Health Care Reform

BY Jason M. Breslow  January 20, 2010 at 1:42 PM EST

Updated 2:40 p.m.

Democratic leaders debated Wednesday how to proceed on health care reform, as the Republican upset victory in Tuesday’s Massachusetts Senate race has dealt President Barack Obama’s signature legislative issue a serious blow.

Republican state Sen. Scott Brown’s victory deprives U.S. Senate leadership of their filibuster-proof 60-vote supermajority, casting doubt on whether the Senate can pass a final version a health reform bill that garnered no Republican votes in December.

On Wednesday President Obama said in an interview with ABC News that the Senate shouldn’t try to “jam anything through” before Brown is certified and seated. Instead, he said, “I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on.”

The White House has signaled that it is not planning to give up on some form of health reform legislation.

“It’s not an option to simply walk away from a problem that’s only going to get worse,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on MSNBC.

And, Axelrod said in another interview, giving up on the bill at this point would only lead to bigger political problems for Democrats in the future.

“I think that it would be a terrible mistake to walk away now,” he told Politico. “If we don’t pass the bill, all we have is the stigma of a caricature that was put on it. That would be the worst result for everybody who has supported this bill.”

House and Senate Democratic leaders are also still insisting they can get legislation passed. “We will get the job done. I am confident of that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters after meeting at the Capitol that ended at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.

But the Democrats’ legislative options for passing the bill are complicated.

The possibility of trying to pass a compromise health reform bill through the House and Senate in the next two weeks, before Brown is certified as Senator, seems dead — even before it was panned by Obama Wednesday, the idea been publically shot down by at several Democrats.

“I believe it would be only fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated,” Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said in a statement.

And Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement “I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results. If Martha Coakley had won, I believe we could have worked out a reasonable compromise between the House and Senate health care bills. But [...] our respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened.”

Another option at this point is to convince the House to pass the Senate bill unaltered, so that it would not need to go back to the Senate for another vote. Then, potentially, Democrats could negotiate some changes to the Senate plan and pass them in a separate bill through a process called reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered and so requires only 51 votes.

The downside to that plan, however, is that reconciliation can only be used for budget-related issues, and so any part of the bill that is not budget-related, including language on abortion and immigration, and possibly even the structure of the health insurance exchange marketplace, could not be changed from the Senate version.

House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., seemed to give tepid support to that plan with a statement Tuesday that the Senate bill was “better than nothing.”

And other House Democrats have voiced support for it. “There is only one guarantee — that if we don’t pass something the notion of trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again is a real long shot,” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., son of the late Edward Kennedy, according to the Boston Globe.

But many rank-and-file members of the House are not immediately falling into line.
Opposition is coming from both the left and right ends of the Democratic spectrum, both of which have disagreements with the Senate bill.

Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat who dislikes the less-restrictive abortion language in the Senate version of the bill, told CNN “The Senate bill is a nonstarter for most members.”

And Rep. Anthony Weiner, a liberal Democrat from New York who has criticized the concessions made as the negotiated bill has tilted more strongly toward the Senate’s version, said Tuesday that “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to step back and say, look, we’re going to pivot to do a jobs thing. We’re going to try to include some healthcare pieces in it.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Senate leadership met Wednesday morning, but made no decisions on how to proceed.

“People just have different feelings about this,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Politico. “This was obviously not a good day for us. To be honest you have to sit back and reassess and move forward.”

And on Wednesday afternoon, Reid told reporters: “Reconciliation is oen of the things that we need to look at with the changed circumstances, but no decisions have been made.”