Giving up on health care overhaul is not an option, the top House Democrat said Wednesday as lawmakers looked to President Barack Obama for guidance in his State of the Union address on how to revive the stalled legislation.
Asked if Congress might abandon a health care initiative beset with political and policy problems, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded: "I don't see that as a possibility. We will have something."
Democrats got encouragement Wednesday from groups as diverse as the nation's Catholic bishops and the head of the largest labor union federation. In a letter to members of Congress, the bishops urged lawmakers to "recommit themselves to enacting genuine health care reform."
"The health care debate, with all its political and ideological conflict, seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority, which is to ensure that affordable, quality, life-giving care is available to all," said clergy from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Now is not the time to abandon this task, but rather to set aside partisan divisions and special interest pressures to find ways to enact genuine reform."
Similarly, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the Senate should come up with a measure that the House can pass. "We fought too long and too hard for health care to quit for now," Trumka said in an interview.
Both the Catholic Church and labor unions have flexed their political muscle in the debate. The bishops say they won't support a final bill that includes Senate-passed language they see as too weak in restricting taxpayer funding for abortion. Labor unions pushed — and succeeded — in weakening a proposed tax on high-cost insurance plans.
Pelosi didn't say whether the final bill will be the sweeping overhaul sought by Obama, or smaller-scale legislation that accomplishes only some of his goals. Democrats were on the verge of passing far-reaching legislation, but the loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat has cost them the 60-vote majority needed to deliver.
Stunned by the loss, Democratic leaders have taken health care legislation off the fast track as they try to find path forward acceptable to rank-and-file Democrats wary of unhappy midterm election voters.
Lawmakers said they don't expect Obama to offer a specific legislative strategy in Wednesday night's speech, but they are looking for a full-throated call for a comprehensive bill.
"The president effectively will hit the reset button ... after which we'll have a matter of weeks, not months to get this right," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.
Not so, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"We're going to find out how to proceed," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "But there is no rush."
The House and Senate separately passed 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bills last year to remake the nation's medical system with new requirements for nearly everyone to carry health insurance and new regulations on insurers' practices. Negotiators were in the final stages of reconciling the differences between the two measures before last week's GOP upset in the race for the Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
Democrats acknowledge that opposition to the health care remake in Washington helped spark the Massachusetts repudiation.
The option attracting the most attention is for the House to pass the Senate bill with changes. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat, told reporters Tuesday he thinks the House could do so if lawmakers get rid of provisions like special Medicaid deals for Louisiana and Nebraska and dial back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions.
But two centrist senators threw up a roadblock to the approach, because it would require 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. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who both face re-election this year in Republican-leaning states, said they would oppose taking that step.
The strategy requires only 51 votes to advance, but Senate leaders may not be able to round up the support. Even if they do, final action could stretch into late next month or beyond. And a number of Democrats sounded Tuesday like health care was the last thing they wanted to be dealing with.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Sam Hananel and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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