Dems discordant on prospects for health care

Jon Ward Contributor
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Democrats’ leadership and their rank and file appeared to be on completely different pages regarding the prospects for a health care bill after President Obama’s State of the Union address.

Several Democratic lawmakers said in interviews after the speech that they were optimistic that a bill could be passed and that it needed to be done sooner rather than later.

“We’re going to pass fairly comprehensive health care. I am optimistic about that,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, predicting a bill in “three to four weeks.”

“I think we’ll do it in the next few weeks, months,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat.

“It’s got to be weeks, not months,” said Rep. Anthony Wiener, New York Democrat,

Rep. Donna Edwards, Maryland Democrat, said “it has to be a quick timetable because we’ve got a lot of other things to do, especially around job creation.”

But Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, pointedly refused to endorse such an idea when asked about it.

“I think the president made it clear. Number one focus: jobs, the economy, helping the middle class. That’s what we’re going to focus on first,” Schumer said.

When asked if he was specifically refusing to endorse passing a bill soon, Schumer said only that Democrats are “not going to shelve health care.”

But Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, suggested that his party might do just that.

“There’s a possibility, a real possibility, that health care reform will not get done this year,” he said on a conference call with reporters, according to the Arkansas News.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was vague about what lies ahead.

“We’re working at it. I think the chances are good,” he said, though it was unclear if he was referring to the prospects of passing a bill in the next several weeks. Hoyer aides have not yet responded to clarify.

An aide to the House Democratic leadership said by e-mail, however, that there is “no timeline.”

Rep. Xavier Bacerra, California Democrat, said Thursday morning that he thinks a health care bill will be passed “by August.”

All of the Democratic lawmakers appeared to believe that their best option, procedurally, lies in passing the Senate bill through the House and changing it through the reconciliation process.

However, reconciliation is a budgetary procedure that is limited in scope. Democratic staffers are trying to figure out if they are actually be able to make some of the changes desired by the House through the reconciliation process.

President Obama does not “have a specific preference” for how the Congress gets the bill through, said his communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, at a forum Thursday morning sponsored by The Atlantic.

Pfeiffer acknowledged that public discontent with Washington and with the health care bill has grown, and said the only way to change that is to pass legislation.

“It’s one of these things that is incredibly popular in theory, and then once the rubber meets the road, the numbers go down,” he said. “I think the underlying problem is something that we can’t change, which is there is a decades old skepticism that government can handle something this big and this complex.”

“Really the only thing you can do is pass it, implement it, and then let people see that the apocalypse doesn’t come the next day.”

Pryor was, again, pessimistic about the chances of using reconciliation.

“I think it’s people talking right now over on the House side trying to figure out a way forward on health care, but my sense is, in the end reconciliation will not even be attempted,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, at The Atlantic forum, said using reconciliation was “possible.”

“We have not had an extensive discussion about hat in our caucus,” she said.

In his speech, Obama urged Congress not to give up on health care. But he offered no specifics on how Congress should try to salvage the top priority item of his first year, which now appears dangerously close to being dead.

“Here’s what I ask Congress, though: Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people,” Obama said. “Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done.”

But the president’s speech reflected the same thing that Schumer’s comments did. The White House wants to focus on jobs and the economy, both because they realize that is where the country largely is most focused, and possibly because they are dubious about the prospects for health care.

Weiner said that for health care to move forward, “the president of the United States has to follow this speech up with the specific things that he wants, and he needs to take this argument to the American people again.”

But the White House message for now is on jobs and economic recovery.

Republicans offered mixed views when asked about the prospects for a bill on such a short timetable as was described by some Democrats.

“I sure hope not,” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said when asked if he thought it possible.

But Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, said the political fallout would be catastrophic for Democrats if they were to ram a bill through.

“If they use reconciliation for health care we will not only take back the House, we’ll take back the Senate as well,” Price said.