Two centrist senators Tuesday threw up a roadblock to salvaging President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, as Democrats agonized over whether to push forward or shift to idle until political resistance subsides.
Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. — both face re-election this year in Republican-leaning states — said they would oppose the strategy Democratic leaders are considering to reconcile the House and Senate bills and put comprehensive legislation on Obama's desk.
That approach involves using a special budget-related procedure to go around Republican opponents in the Senate, a calculated risk sure to inflame critics on the political right.
"There are no easy choices," acknowledged House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md, insisting that the goal remains the same: to pass far-reaching legislation that would expand coverage, reduce costs and improve quality.
Even as Bayh and Lincoln made their concerns known, House Democratic leaders reported progress in trying to get their rank and file to accept a modified version of the Senate bill.
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat, told reporters he believes the House could pass the Senate bill if lawmakers get rid of special Medicaid deals for Louisiana and Nebraska and dial back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions.
A week after the loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat — their 60th vote — cost Democrats undisputed control of the congressional agenda, leaders have yet to find their way on health care.
"There is no rush," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after a luncheon meeting of Democrats that focused on jobs and the economy, not health care. Reid said he'll keep talking with House Democrats and White House officials.
Lawmakers hope Obama will help guide them when the president delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday. Obama is unlikely to delve into the strategy for passing a health care bill, Hoyer said, but he is expected to stress the importance of getting comprehensive legislation along the lines of what the House and Senate already passed.
Democrats now have four options, Hoyer said: No bill, a scaled-back measure designed to attract some Republican support, the House passing the Senate bill, or the House passing the Senate bill with both chambers making changes to bridge their differences.
"Democratic leaders are taking time to talk to our members about what they are hearing from their constituents, and to digest with some clarity the messages that voters in Massachusetts were sending," Hoyer said in a speech.
Unlike Reid, Hoyer said he thinks moving quickly is important. "By next week we need to come to focus on the way we want to move forward," he told reporters.
Opposition to the health care remake in Washington helped spark the Massachusetts revolt, Democrats acknowledge. Obama called the monthslong debate on Capitol Hill "an ugly process."
"It looks like there are a bunch of back-room deals," the president said in an interview with ABC News.
Of the four options that Hoyer outlined, only one has been ruled out. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week she does not have the votes to pass the Senate bill without any changes.
Democratic leaders are coalescing around the idea of the House passing the Senate bill, with both chambers agreeing to follow-up legislation that would settle major differences.
The strategy calls for the Senate to use a budget-related procedure — reconciliation— that requires only 51 votes to advance. Even so, leaders may not be able to round up the votes.
"My concern is that if reconciliation is used, that will really destroy any prospects for bipartisan cooperation on anything else for the remainder of this year," Bayh said. "That would be a regrettable state of affairs, something I think the American public would not react well to."
"I will not accept any last-minute efforts to force changes to health insurance reform through budget reconciliation," Lincoln said in a statement.
But Clyburn, the Democrats' vote-counter in the House, for the first time suggested it would be doable.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Donna Cassata, Alan Fram and Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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