Odds for health care overhaul long, Democrats push ahead

Aim to revive president’s stalled agenda

By Alan Fram
Associated Press / February 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Democrats pushed hard yesterday to revive President Obama’s stalled health care overhaul - and pointed to glimmers of hope - but the odds they face still seem long after Obama’s extraordinary summit with both parties’ leaders.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would unveil a “way forward’’ next week on legislation that has been his foremost domestic priority. Obama, who will first discuss the strategy with Democratic congressional leaders, said at Thursday’s bipartisan marathon that he’s open to several Republican ideas, including medical malpractice changes.

On Capitol Hill, a pair of retiring Democrats who opposed the legislation when the House approved it in November appeared willing to reconsider.

And some supporters of a House provision strictly banning federal financing for abortion - a complicated sticking point - indicated an openness to different language.

The outcome could affect nearly all Americans, remaking the way they pay for health care, the kinds of care they’re likely to receive, and where they’re likely to get it. Or there could be smaller changes - or none - outcomes the Democrats say will lead to crushing budget problems and tens of millions of people still being left out. Republicans see problems in the health care system, too, but recommend limited prescriptions.

Despite the signs of movement, a day after television cameras brought the nation Obama’s unusual daylong discussion with top Republicans and Democrats, there were no clear indications of a major change in Congress. The equation remained the same: Democratic leaders, especially in the House, will have to scramble to find votes to pass any health legislation and they’re almost certainly going to have to do it without Republican support.

Democrats have doubts also.

“People who voted ‘yes’ would love a second bite at the apple to vote ‘no’ this time, because they went home and got an unpleasant experience’’ because of their votes, said Representative Jason Altmire, a moderate Democrat from Pennsylvania. “On the other hand, I don’t know anybody who voted ‘no’ who regrets it.’’

Top Democrats spoke of plunging ahead anyway.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said she saw “good prospects for passing’’ health legislation and contended Thursday’s meeting showed a GOP content to accept the status quo of insurance companies bullying consumers.

That was echoed in the Senate by number two Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, who said, “We are not going to wait.’’

The primary problem for Democratic leaders is the House. That chamber approved its bill, 220 to 215, in November. But one of those “yes’’ votes came from the only Republican who supported the bill, Representative Joseph Cao of Louisiana, who now says he will oppose the bill.

In fact, Democrats following the legislation say House support has sunk to 200 votes or fewer in recent weeks, following Scott Brown’s stunning GOP victory in last month’s special Massachusetts Senate election and the bill’s modest showing in polls.

The legislation would curb insurance industry practices such as denying coverage to people who are already sick, extend coverage to about 30 million uninsured people, and help many low-income people pay for it, financed by Medicare cuts and new taxes on higher earning Americans and health providers.

At least for now, Democrats envision prevailing by getting the House to pass the Senate health bill, then sending Obama a separate measure making changes in the Senate package.