Democrats strain to find way forward on Obama’s health-care plan with loss of Senate seat

Jon Ward Contributor
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Democrats on Wednesday tried to parse the chaotic fallout from Tuesday’s landmark election in Massachusetts, straining to discern whether any path toward health-care reform remains open to them.

They ended the day essentially as they began: in limbo.

“No decisions about how to proceed have been made,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “This is an opportunity to listen to our members about how to get health insurance reform signed into law.”

The entirety of the Democratic establishment, from President Obama to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Pelosi, repeated the same mantra: they are determined to continue forward with health-care reform.

But the politics of any options still on the table for Democrats appeared to be severely complicated.

Getting the Senate bill through the House, even with changes made through reconciliation, risks losing votes from anti-abortion Democrats.

In addition, the odds of peeling off any of the 39 Democrats who voted against it in November appear slim. The Daily Caller contacted almost all of those Democrats, and only one, Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, responded, saying he does not plan to vote for the Senate bill.

There is the gulf between how Democrats and Republicans believe the health-care system should be fixed. It is so wide that any bipartisan cooperation seems unlikely.

Plus, Democrats feel an urgency to pass something in time to ramp up their messaging for the fall’s mid-term elections, and a bipartisan effort would be protracted.

Reassembling the necessary 218 votes in the current environment would be difficult. The margin of victory, two more than was necessary, was already small. And one of those votes, former Fla. Rep. Robert Wexler, vacated his seat earlier this month.

Further, even the president acknowledged that members of his party in Congress are unnerved about voting for the Senate bill in the wake of a Republican win in one of the country’s most liberal states on Tuesday, which has widely been viewed as a referendum on the healthcare bill.

“They’re feeling obviously unsettled and there were a bunch of provisions in the Senate bill that they didn’t like, and so I can’t force them to do that,” Obama said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski, Illinois Democrat, voted for the bill in November but a spokesman on Wednesday said he would not vote for the Senate bill.

“Congressman Lipinski will not vote for a health-care bill that provides federal funding for abortion. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does provide federal funding for abortion,” said Lipinski spokesman Nathaniel Zimmer.

Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who led the anti-abortion coalition that forced Pelosi to accept their stringent restrictions, said that abortion is fourth on the list of problems with the Senate bill, after a lack of antitrust exemptions, quality of care provisions and insurance reform.

“There are so many problems with the Senate bill from the House view that they wouldn’t get a 100 votes,” Stupak said in an interview with the Weekly Standard. “The only thing I think they can do now is to try to come up with a less aggressive bill and try to do something like that.”

Pelosi spent much of the day in meetings with different constituencies within the Democratic Caucus. She met with the conservative Blue Dogs, as well as with the progressives, and also held separate meetings with freshman members and sophomore members.

Obama, in his first public remarks since Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election Tuesday, seemed to endorse the idea of a piecemeal approach that might seek to pass parts of the bill one at a time, striving for bipartisan support.

“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on,” he said in the ABC interview, listing cost containment, insurance reform and help for help for small businesses as “core elements.”

“After all this work and all this pain, there should be a way of taking what’s best in both bills and going ahead and getting that done,” he said.

He offered no specifics on how to do so. And the president’s own advisers seemed negative on the prospects for bipartisanship, communicating that Republicans have little incentive to work with Democrats following the brutal rejection of Democrat Martha Coakley by one of the country’s most liberal states.

“The president would be happy to work with them, but … they’ve got to want to work,” Gibbs said. “If what you construct working with the other party, the other party is then unwilling to support … you can’t do that.”

Republicans have griped for months that the Obama White House and its allies in the Democratic leadership have cut them out of health-care talks, and made the case again Wednesday.

“They have, to a person, rejected our participation. It’s gone so far as the majority leader telling me there’s no use in talking to Republicans because they reject the public option,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

The administration’s liberal allies continued to call on them to find a way to force House Democrats to vote for the bill again, and to make any fixes through a “reconciliation” bill that could accompany it, perhaps simultaneously.

Andy Stern, the head of the Service Employees International Union, called for Democrats to plow forward with the Senate bill through the House. He made the case some liberals have been making for days, that Democrats who voted for the bill the first time already “own health reform.”

“They own the votes they already took,” Stern wrote in a column for the Huffington Post. “And, they own what health reform will stand for. Most importantly, it will be a major achievement the American people need and deserve. There is no turning back. There is no running away. There is no reset button.”

Republicans said that in fact, the only option in their view is to go all the way back to the beginning.

“We ought to stop and start over and go step-by-step to concentrate on fixing the problem, which is the rising costs,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “And we laid out a series of things that we thought would address the cost problem without having the government take over one-sixth of our economy.”

A McConnell spokesman said that some of those steps include cracking down on junk lawsuits, allowing the buying of insurance across state lines, and placing incentives in insurance premiums for more healthy living and wellness.