Congressional leaders are taking healthcare legislation off the fast track as rank-and-file Democrats, wary of unhappy midterm election voters, look to President Barack Obama for guidance in his State of the Union address.
House and Senate leaders said Tuesday they need time to determine the best way forward on healthcare in the wake of last week's special election loss in Massachusetts, which cost Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority.
Obama is not expected to offer a specific prescription in Wednesday night's speech, but Democrats want to hear him renew his commitment to the healthcare overhaul he's spent the past year promoting as his top domestic priority.
It is now badly adrift, and lawmakers want to stop talking about the divisive topic and move on to jobs and the economy, the issues they say preoccupy their constituents.
"The president effectively will hit the reset button (Wednesday) night, after which we'll have a matter of weeks, not months to get this right," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.
"We're reaching the point where our momentum is clearly stopped already," Weiner said. "If we're going to do this, I think we have to do this soon."
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 healthcare remake in Washington helped spark the Massachusetts revolution.
Democrats now have four options for moving forward, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has ruled out passing the Senate bill with no changes, and no Democrats are publicly advocating abandoning the effort altogether, though Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, a leader of conservative House Democrats, said some conservative Democrats would prefer to do just that.
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 healthcare was the last thing they wanted to be dealing with.
"If someone's losing their house, lost their job, the last thing they care about is their next door neighbor's healthcare," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
"Healthcare isn't the No. 1 issue on their minds. If it's not the No. 1 issue on my constituents' minds, it's not the No. 1 issue on my mind."
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