WASHINGTON – Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill, struggling to figure out how to resuscitate their stalled health care overhaul, are looking to move away from the politically explosive issue and turn to other legislation – especially efforts to stimulate job growth.
That could put off any formal debate of health care legislation for weeks, if not longer, senior lawmakers and Democratic officials said Friday.
But it would allow the rattled party to focus on a more popular issue with voters while calming Democratic anxiety over health care in the wake of this week’s Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate election.
Speaking with reporters after a meeting with other Democratic lawmakers Friday at the Capitol, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., one of the lead architects of the Democratic health care legislation, called for “a breather.”
House Democrats, most of whom returned to their districts Thursday, suspended health care strategizing on Friday.
Congressional Democrats and White House officials have been discussing two possible strategies for passing some form of health care legislation despite losing a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Under one scenario, the House would pass the bill approved in the Senate just before Christmas; that would send the bill directly to President Barack Obama for signature. Then, both chambers would adopt a series of changes to the legislation sought by House Democrats through a process called budget reconciliation that requires only 51 votes in the Senate.
Senior Democrats are also exploring ways to scale back the health care bills developed last year.
Both approaches would require time to develop legislative language and to try to build support among jittery rank-and-file lawmakers.
Democrats may be able to draw on residual support for major elements of the health overhaul, a new poll by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation suggests.
More than 60 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to support health care legislation if it would expand the Medicaid program for the poor, help seniors on Medicare buy prescription drugs and guarantee that all Americans could get insurance, even if they are sick.
More than 70 percent of Americans say they would back a bill that includes tax credits for small businesses that provide their workers with health benefits.
Many people do not realize these proposals are in the Democratic health care legislation, however. And the overall bills remain very unpopular. Just 42 percent of Americans now say they believe the country would be better off if Congress passes “health care reform,” down from 59 percent a year ago, the Kaiser survey found.
That has helped fuel calls for a smaller piece of legislation.
But many health care experts and leading advocates of an overhaul worry that a scaled-back bill would have only minimal impact and could trigger costly and unpopular consequences – in large part because so many parts of the health care system are interconnected and tinkering with one causes problems in another.
On Friday, Obama, who earlier in the week seemed to endorse a scaled-back approach, defended a more ambitious agenda.
“I have to admit, we’ve run into a bit of a buzz saw,” the president said at a town hall meeting in Ohio, before concluding with a call to action.
“This is our best chance to do it. We can’t keep on putting this off,” he said. “We can’t sort of start suddenly saying to ourselves America or Congress can’t do big things, that we should only do the things that are noncontroversial, we should only do the stuff that’s safe. Because if that’s what happens, then we’re not going to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”