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Leaders Assess Health Reform Options

Democratic leaders scrambled Wednesday to salvage at least a chunk of their health care reform package following the shattering of their 60-vote Senate supermajority in the Massachusetts special election.

Two competing ideas were emerging in the House by the end of the day. In one scenario, Democrats would push a second bill through using budget reconciliation rules that would “fix” the Senate health care bill sitting on the House’s desk.

Such a bill would need just 51 votes in the Senate. The House would not take up the Senate package unless Senators clear the reconciliation bill.

That idea was floated in closed-door meetings by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who spent the day holed up with various factions of her Caucus. That route may be the only way to preserve the larger Democratic goal of achieving near-universal coverage, given overwhelming opposition in the House to passing the Senate bill as is.

“It’s obvious that there is not sufficient support to pass the bill in its present form,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said.

A competing idea gaining traction among some Members of leadership and especially among junior Members would start over with a new bill or bills focusing on politically popular insurance reforms that have broad support on the Hill, like doing away with pre-existing conditions and eliminating antitrust protections for insurance companies.

President Barack Obama weighed in during an ABC interview, suggesting that Democrats “coalesce” around reforms that everyone can support, appearing to nod toward a scaled-back effort — although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on CNN that passing the Senate bill was still a possibility.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said a new bill could be constructed to respond to the voters. “I think that’s a reasonable alternative,” Hoyer said of Obama’s comments. “Given where we are, given the public’s concern, I think that we ought to focus on what we think the public can support and will be positive in making health care more affordable and obtainable. You could do it in a number of ways. You could do it in an individual, new bill.”

But House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said he hadn’t heard discussions of starting over with a new bill. “We could fly to the moon, too,” he said.

Indeed, Democrats repeatedly cautioned that they weren’t sure what to do in the wake of the Republican Scott Brown’s stunning upset in the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday.

“There is no plan,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, after meeting with Pelosi on Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), one of a group of about 25 sophomore “majority makers” who met with Pelosi and other House leaders, said they suggested moving forward with things “that are almost universally popular. ... The idea seems to be gaining steam.”

Walz said leaders seemed more realistic Wednesday about what was doable than they were Tuesday night, when they were discussing “pie in the sky” options.

Walz said the idea of pushing through a bill under reconciliation “wasn’t real popular among the sophomore class.”

“There’s a real sense of realism here,” he said.

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