Democratic leaders on Thursday shelved plans to push through a major health care overhaul, casting aside President Obama’s top legislative goal, which has bedeviled congressional Democrats for more than a year.
Senate Democrats put a positive spin on it, arguing that they’re sidelining it until later this year - possibly until the summer - so they could deal immediately with Mr. Obama’s State of the Union call to address the economy and job creation.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said a comprehensive bill is still a priority, already has plans to pursue small, targeted health bills, such as a repeal of insurance companies’ antitrust protection.
Rank-and-file Democrats aren’t optimistic about the fate of a comprehensive overhaul.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, classified the legislation as on “life-support” and with a pulse, but warned that resuscitating the legislation would take a lot of work.
“Can we come out of the dugout in the second half and fight and come back and win in the second half of the game?” she said. “Yes. But it’s going to take some serious strategic excellence … and absolutely extraordinary communication and coordination to do that.”
Mr. Obama said Wednesday that he still wanted a health care reform bill - an uphill legislative effort that headlined his first year in office - but suggested that lawmakers take a step back before renewing their work.
“As temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we’ve proposed,” Mr. Obama said in his address. “But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Here’s what I ask of Congress, though: Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close.”
But Democrats on Capitol Hill, eager to prove to voters that they’re listening to their concerns about the hobbled economy and the job market, are ready to move a jobs bill.
“The president made it clear that our No. 1 focus this year is putting Americans back to work,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “And we couldn’t agree more.”
Democrats plan to release a jobs package, possibly next week, that could include a mix of funding for infrastructure projects, targeted tax cuts and small-business loans. The plan could include a “cash for caulkers” program or even forgiving some payroll taxes for companies that hire unemployed workers, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and majority whip.
Leaders stressed that health care reform legislation is still important and is still going to get done.
“We’re going to do health care reform this year,” Mr. Reid said. “The question is, at this stage procedurally, how do we get where we need to go.”
The yearlong effort to push reform legislation through five congressional committees and both chambers of Congress dominated Mr. Obama’s first year in office. Presidents had tried for decades to pursue a universal health bill, but never got nearly as far as Democrats did last year.
The debate over a public insurance plan, federal funding of abortion, costs and other issues divided the public. Mr. Obama said Wednesday that he holds himself responsible for never clearly explaining what he wanted the bill to do. Republicans seized on the opportunity to label the plan over the summer, telling voters that the bill would lead to a government takeover of the health care system, tax hikes and even at one point to the infamous “death panels.”
The public’s distrust of the effort came to a head in Massachusetts when Republican state Sen. Scott Brown on Jan. 19 won the seat long held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, shocking Democrats and giving Republicans enough votes to sustain a filibuster of the bill. Mr. Brown won in the traditionally blue state by promising to vote against it.
Mrs. Pelosi is already planning on pursuing small pieces of the Democrats’ health bill - an indication that House Democrats are anxious to take action and declare a small victory.
She said she would and wait to see how the Senate pursues obtaining a comprehensive bill now that Democrats no longer have a supermajority. Legislation to repeal insurance companies’ antitrust protections could be introduced as soon as next week.
“We will move on many fronts, any front we can,” she said. “But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people for their own personal health and economic security and for the important role that it will play in reducing the deficit.”