WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Senate Democrats voiced opposition to the most likely strategy to move ahead on healthcare reform on Tuesday and the top Senate Democrat said there was no rush to find a way to pass the bill this year.
Democrats held a series of closed-door meetings to discuss a short list of imperfect healthcare options before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday, but acknowledged they had no clear path to success.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said “there is no rush” to find a new strategy to pass healthcare reform, Obama’s top legislative priority, after last week’s loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat cost them their crucial 60th vote in the Senate.
“We’re trying to figure out what is possible,” said House of Representatives Democratic leader Steny Hoyer. “There are no easy choices.”
Many Democrats have grown pessimistic about the likelihood of finding a quick way forward for healthcare, and are anxious to turn to a debate on job creation and the economy ahead of November’s congressional elections.
Under the most discussed plan, the House would pass the Senate health bill, eliminating the need for another Senate vote, and both chambers would pass House-sought changes to the Senate bill through a process called reconciliation.
That parliamentary procedure would require a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate, but risk a possible political backlash by bypassing unified Republican opposition to a bill that polls show is unpopular with the public.
Two moderate Senate Democrats facing potentially tough re-election fights — Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana — said they would oppose that strategy.
Bayh said it would “destroy any prospect for bipartisan cooperation on anything else for the remainder of this year. That would be a regrettable state of affairs and the public would not react well.”
But the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, said reconciliation remained an option on healthcare.
“I think reconciliation has been used effectively by both parties, most recently by the Republicans. It is not only legal it is part of our budget resolution,” Durbin told reporters.
“I wouldn’t walk away from it. I think it’s an option we should keep on the table.”
Democratic House leaders say they do not have the votes to pass the Senate bill without changes. House Democrats have objected to Senate provisions such as a tax on high-cost insurance plans and a less restrictive policy on using federal funds to cover abortions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House might have the votes to pass the Senate bill with the proper changes, however. “Depends what the fixes are,” she told reporters after House leaders met with Reid.
Democrats also could start over with a scaled-back healthcare package, but that could take time and many lawmakers are anxious to move on.
“Momentum has clearly stopped already, but I think if we are going to do this we have to do it soon,” Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner said after a meeting of Democratic House members to discuss healthcare.
House and Senate Democratic leaders had been negotiating to merge the healthcare bills passed in each chamber into one version that could be passed again and sent to Obama, but that was cut short by the Massachusetts election.
Both bills would extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, create exchanges where individuals can shop for insurance plans and bar insurance practices like refusing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Hoyer said lawmakers had cleared the decks for discussion of jobs and the economy around Obama’s State of the Union speech, but needed to make a decision on how to proceed on healthcare sometime next week.
He said he did not expect Obama to tell congressional leaders how to proceed. “I would be surprised if he said specifically, exactly how he hopes to get healthcare done,” Hoyer said.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro; editing by Chris Wilson