President Barack Obama advised fellow Democrats against trying to jam a health care bill through Congress after taking a devastating hit from the loss of a Senate seat. He said Wednesday it's time to come together around a bill that can draw Republican support, too.
When Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown takes office he will hand the GOP power to block the Democratic agenda, including Obama's top domestic priority of extending health coverage to the uninsured.
"The people of Massachusetts spoke. He's got to be part of that process," Obama said.
Now Democrats need to reach across the aisle on popular health care provisions such as cost controls and aid to small businesses, he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Obama political adviser David Axelrod said administration officials will take into account the message voters delivered Tuesday in electing Brown, but he declined to go further.
"It's not an option simply to walk away from a problem that's only going to get worse," Axelrod said.
Asked if the Democrats' bill, as currently written, is dead, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky responded: "I sure hope so."
But senior Democrats echoed Axelrod's determination to press ahead, even as they acknowledged it's not clear just how they will do that.
The quickest route is for the House to approve the Senate-passed bill and send it to Obama. But it's not clear Democrats in the House have the votes — or the White House's support. Another alternative calls for the Senate Democrats to promise changes later on, part of a deal to get the House to pass the bill. But Senate Democrats may not be able to deliver on such a promise.
A third option emerged Wednesday — a scaled-back bill that would keep centrist Democrats in line and perhaps attract the support of moderate Republicans.
That appeared to be Obama's preferred approach.
"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on," he said in an interview with ABC News.
Lawmakers said the party would be looking to Obama for his ideas about what to do next since expanding health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and reining in rising medical costs have been his top domestic initiative.
"I do believe this really does present the president of the United States a golden opportunity to say here's what we're doing, here's how I want to lead the country in health care," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who added that Obama and Democrats would have to move within 4-6 weeks or "we've lost it for this year."
The stinging loss Tuesday cost Obama the 60-vote Senate majority he was counting on to block Republican delaying tactics and pass the far-reaching legislation. The outcome splintered the rank and file on how to salvage the bill, energized congressional Republicans and left Obama and the Democrats with fallback options that range from bad to worse.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to say how the White House would proceed now that Obama has lost the minimum 60 votes need to push health care legislation through the Senate.
"There are a number of different ways to do this," Gibbs said. He said the path would become clearer in the "hours and days" ahead.
Obama will address the election results' impact during his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, Gibbs said. The spokesman said Obama was not expecting Democrats to lose the Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
"There's no doubt we are frustrated by that," Gibbs said. "I think everybody bears some responsibility, certainly including the White House."
During his daily meeting with reporters, Gibbs spoke repeatedly of the election as a signal of voters' anger and frustration about a struggling economy.
"That anger is now pointed at us because we're in charge," Gibbs said. "Rightly so."
Obama met briefly at the White House early Tuesday night with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"We're trying to come up with a strategy to pursue health care. We're facing this new political reality" of the loss of their 60th Senate seat, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader.
"The question is what will it take to move forward, and there are various scenarios," he said.
Pelosi said Wednesday that Democrats have gotten the message from Massachusetts voters — and it isn't to drop health care. "We heard, we will heed, we will move forward with their considerations in mind, but we will move forward" on health care, she said.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Democrats still don't get it.
"While the American people continue to speak, the Democrat leadership here in this House continues to ignore them," he said. "It's that kind of arrogance that has the American people about ready ... to throw every Democrat out of here."
Republicans argued that the election of Brown over the once-favored Democrat Martha Coakley in the Democratic stronghold sent a message that ambitious health legislation should be scrapped altogether, in favor of more modest steps.
Democrats don't appear to have enough time to resolve differences between the two bills passed by the House and Senate — and get cost and coverage estimates back from the Congressional Budget Office — before Brown is sworn in.
Moderate Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the Senate should not hold any further votes on health care until Brown is seated.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Mark Smith, Gerry Bodlander, Jim Abrams and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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