WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders insist they will push ahead with efforts to overhaul the U.S. health care system despite losing undisputed control of the Senate.
They just haven’t decided what it will look like or how they will pass it. In fact, they aren’t explaining much.
A senior Democratic aide said Saturday that House and Senate leaders are considering changes to the health care bill passed by the Senate that could make it acceptable to the House. Under one scenario, Democratic senators would make the agreed-upon fixes using a special budget procedure that requires only 51 votes to overcome Republican delaying tactics.
The House would then pass the Senate bill, sending it to Obama for his signature and allowing the health care remake to become law.
But the aide, who described the discussions on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said no decisions have been made. The strategy would be politically risky because it would enrage Republicans, and the legislation itself lacks strong public support.
Obama acknowledges running into a “bit of a buzz saw” of opposition. A top Democrat suggested that Congress slow down on health care, a sign of eroding political will in the wake of a Republican’s upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday.
Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who got health legislation through the Senate’s health committee last year after the death of his friend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said Obama and lawmakers could “maybe take a breather for a month, six weeks.”
Just a week ago the health legislation had appeared on the cusp of passage after Obama threw himself into marathon negotiations with congressional leaders to work out differences between the separate health care reform bills passed by the House and Senate.
“There are things that have to get done. This is our best chance to do it. We can’t keep on putting this off,” Obama said Friday at a town hall meeting in Elyria, Ohio.
“I am not going to walk away just because it’s hard,” the president said.
Obama seemed to pull back from a suggestion he made Wednesday that lawmakers unite behind the elements of the legislation everyone can agree on. Obama said scaling back health care presented problems because some of the popular ideas, such as banning denial of coverage to people with medical problems, can’t be done unless most Americans are insured.
“A lot of these insurance reforms are connected to some other things we have to do to make sure that everybody has some access to coverage,” he said. For example, insurers wouldn’t be able to end the practice of denying coverage to people with health conditions unless more people were covered. Otherwise people could wait until they got sick to buy insurance and premiums could skyrocket.
Obama has used immense political capital to advance the health care overhaul and remake a system that has frustrated past administrations, most recently Democrat Bill Clinton’s in 1994. Whether he can succeed where others have failed is now unclear.
“Here’s the good news. We’ve gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week,” the president said.
Despite Dodd’s suggestion that Democrats take a breather, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insist the health care legislation will go forward. They just haven’t said how.
The changes under discussion to the Senate bill would reflect agreements leaders of both chambers made during negotiations at the White House two weeks ago. That includes weakening the Senate bill’s tax on high-cost insurance plans, opposed by labor unions and considered a nonstarter in the House. Closing gaps in prescription drug coverage for the elderly is also under consideration.
One potential approach could allow the Senate to act with a simple majority instead of the 60-vote total Democrats now lack with the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts. A supermajority of 60 votes is needed to overcome Republican filibusters — a legislative procedure that blocks measures from coming up for a final vote.
But House Republican leader John Boehner said the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts has sent a loud warning to Democrats — cease and desist on health care overhaul.
“For the better part of those nine months, Democrats in Washington have been focused on this government takeover of health care that working families just can’t afford and want nothing to do with,” Boehner said in his party’s radio and Internet address Saturday.
Obama has made fixing a broken health care system the top domestic policy priority of his first term, but has faced solid opposition from the Republican minority.
Despite assurances from Obama and his administration, opposition to his plans have grown among people who bought into allegations of higher taxes, unbearable government deficits and serious government meddling in health care.
The United States is the only industrialized country without a version of universal health care. Americans get their health insurance mainly through their employers, with government programs to cover mainly retirees, military veterans and members of Native American tribes.
Forty million to 50 million Americans are uninsured and get medical care largely through hospital emergency rooms.