Democrats Struggle to Move Forward on Healthcare

Pelosi promised to pass ‘something’ and Obama urged Democrats to press on.

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"Shell-shocked" is the way Democrats kept describing their reaction to last Tuesday's election in Massachusetts. Hill aides sounded weary and uncertain. Gone was the hope that healthcare reform was close to clearing its last hurdle. Gone was the sense of inevitability that had sprung up around the effort.

In its place, the following day, were hastily arranged private meetings convened by Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent the day rotating among caucus members. They were "assessing," "re-evaluating," doing damage control.

Senate Democrats gathered around noon the same day for their first meeting of the new year, a regularly scheduled weekly lunch, but the mood and agenda were clearly different. "Every member of the caucus, as individuals and as a group, is trying to read the tea leaves," said a Senate Democratic aide. "Members are concerned."

A week later, Democrats are still trying to decide what to do: push forward, back down, or take a new approach to salvage healthcare reform, the centerpiece of their domestic agenda. On Wednesday, Pelosi promised that Democrats will pass "something," yet Democratic leaders are admittedly slowing down and thinking about their options. Though President Obama urged Congress in his State of the Union address last night to "finish the job for the American people," he did not set a deadline for doing so.

The choice they make will likely hinge on several things, including balancing what the White House wants against what Democratic leaders think they can get, interpreting what voters in Massachusetts were saying, and divining what, if anything, the outcome means for the November midterm elections.

Clearly the Senate math has changed. The loss of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat to Republican Scott Brown leaves Democrats with 59 votes, one shy of what they need to block a filibuster. That means the old plan of merging the bills passed by the House and Senate and then sending a new bill through both chambers is dead unless the Senate tries to vote on something before Brown is seated. But President Obama, along with several Senate Democrats, quicklyruled that out. "People in Massachusetts spoke," Obama said last week. "[Brown has] got to be part of that process."

There is serious head-scratching within the party about the message Massachusetts voters sent, and hence the appropriate response. Some say voters were upset with the administration for trying to do too much at once, for reaching too far with healthcare reform, for putting the government too far into their lives. Then there are those who say the opposite—that the administration hasn't done enough, that change is happening too slowly, that people are upset with Congress's glacial pace.

If the latter is true, Congress should buckle down, not give up, healthcare reform advocates say. "What the Congress needs to understand is that people expect Democrats and people in government to get something done," says Richard Kirsch, national director of Health Care for America Now, the largest reform advocacy group. "Using this as an excuse not to do healthcare would be totally self-defeating."

One of the few polls on election night gives weight to Kirsch's argument. The poll, run by a handful of progressive groups, found that among people who voted for Obama in 2008 but voted for Brown on Tuesday, significantly more said they were opposed to reform because they felt it doesn't go "far enough" than because it goes "too far."

Like Obama, House and Senate Democratic aides insist that healthcare reform is not dead and say that it will move forward in some form. The task, they say, is to regroup, not to retreat. "I think what we've learned is that change is not easy," says a House Democratic aide. "Bringing about real change, sweeping change, is not a quick process. There are going to be people on both sides saying you haven't done enough or you've done too much." The challenge, the aide says, is finding the comfort zone of the American people.