President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday that his health care overhaul ran into "a bit of a buzz saw" but vowed to press ahead despite increasingly tough political odds.
"I am not going to walk away just because it's hard," Obama said at a town hall in Elyria, Ohio.
Democrats loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts on Tuesday unnerved lawmakers, and on Capitol Hill, some appeared to be losing the will for fast action.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., suggested that Obama and Democrats should "maybe take a breather for a month, six weeks" to regroup from the election loss, which cost Democrats the Senate 60-seat supermajority needed to pass the sweeping legislation.
"We have to find this way forward, and we're probably better going to do that in a calmer environment," said Dodd, who shepherded the bill through the Senate's health committee last year after the death of committee chairman Edward M. Kennedy.
It was Kennedy's longtime Senate seat that changed party hands on Tuesday with the victory of Republican Scott Brown, a bitter irony for Democrats since universal health coverage had been Kennedy's lifelong goal.
Ever since then Democrats have been scrambling to figure out how to move forward with the legislation, which just a week ago appeared on the cusp of passage after Obama threw himself into marathon negotiations with congressional leaders to work out differences between the House and Senate bills. Health overhaul had been Obama's top agenda item and had consumed lawmakers time for the better part of last year.
If anything the path ahead is only getting murkier because the option that the White House initially appeared to prefer — for the House to pass the Senate's version of the bill, obviating the need for further Senate action — was ruled a nonstarter by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday.
In a TV interview earlier this week Obama appeared to endorse a different alternative, a scaled-back bill pulling together some of the more popular elements of the legislation. But that's easier said than done because some of the popular items — like barring insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions — depend on more controversial measures, like requiring everyone to obtain health coverage so there's a large enough risk pool for insurers to stop coverage denials.
Obama didn't offer any specifics on how to move forward on Friday, though Democrats have been increasingly saying his leadership is crucial. The president made mostly general comments about the need to hold down health care costs, and alluded only in passing to the Massachusetts election, saying, "I know folks in Washington are in a little bit of a frenzy this week, trying to figure out what the election in Massachusetts the other day means for health insurance reform, for Republicans and Democrats, and for me. This is what they love to do."
"But this isn't about me. It's about you. I didn't take up this issue to boost my poll numbers or score political points believe me, if I were, I would have picked something a lot easier than this," Obama said.
Obama also said the legislation has "run into a bit of a buzz saw" of special interest opposition and partisan politics. "And the longer it's taken, the uglier the process has looked," he said.
Notwithstanding the comments Friday from Dodd, who is not seeking re-election this year, Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have both insisted the health care legislation will go forward — though they haven't said how. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Friday that plans to push forward haven't changed.
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