WASHINGTON — Shortly before his death last summer, Ted Kennedy described his efforts to reform the U.S. health-care system as “the cause of my life.”
It’s one of the bitter ironies for Democrats that the man who’s replacing Kennedy in the United States Senate has vowed to essentially kill the very legislation that his predecessor helped construct as he was dying of brain cancer.
But on a day of celebration, recrimination, brainstorming and soul-searching in D.C.’s corridors of power Wednesday, Democrats were vowing not to allow Republican Scott Brown’s election to the Senate prevent them from passing health-care legislation after months of fierce national debate that has dominated Barack Obama’s young presidency.
Obama, on the anniversary of his historic inauguration, urged legislators to reach a consensus on the central hallmarks of the health-care bill.
“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on,” he told ABC News.
“We know that we need insurance reform. The health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up,” he said.
“And we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance for their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of this bill.”
The man who ran Obama’s presidential campaign, meantime, said giving up on health-care reform would be “the worst thing we can do as a Democratic party.”
“That’s what we’ve been doing in this country for years, decades, and even generations,” David Plouffe said. “And that’s what the insurance companies want us to do.”
Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said lawmakers are taking time to ponder their options and would not ram through any legislation before Brown’s swearing-in some time in early February. The new senator has accused Democrats of plotting to delay his certification for as long as possible in order to pass the health-care bill.
“We’re not going to rush into anything,” Reid said after a meeting of Democratic senators failed to produce a plan to proceed. “There are many different things that we can do to move forward on health care, but we’re not making any of those decisions now.”
Brown’s win Tuesday dealt a mammoth blow to Democrats because it breaks the party’s 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at a time when health-care reform was nearing the legislative finish line.
Michael Steele, Republican party chairman, said Americans are breathing “a sigh of relief” after Brown’s victory, and advised Democrats to “start from scratch and start by listening to the people.”
But Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, pledged not to give up on health-care reform, rejecting suggestions that Brown’s election proves that even Americans in historically friendly states don’t want it.
“We will move forward with those considerations in mind — but we will move forward,” Pelosi said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House leader, said there is a solution at hand — one that Plouffe described as a “sound option.”
Democrats in the House and the Senate have been attempting to meld their separate bills into one version so that it can be sent to Obama’s desk and signed into law. Both bills would extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.
Hoyer said that even though House Democrats have problems with the Senate bill, especially its tax on high-cost insurance plans that American labour unions vehemently oppose, they’d be willing to consider approving the Senate package as is, if the alternative is no reform at all.
Alterations to the bill could be made later in the year through a procedure known as reconciliation, requiring only a 51-vote Senate majority.
One Democratic congressman said he agreed with the strategy.
“If that’s the only option in town, that’s what we ought to do,” said Baron Hill of Indiana.
It was still unclear on Wednesday, however, if Democrats have enough House votes to pass the Senate bill. And some Democrats worried about employing as drastic a measure as reconciliation as the November mid-term elections loom.
Advocates for health-care reform urged the Democrats to do whatever’s necessary to pass legislation.
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said Brown’s win was a “wake-up call” for Democrats that “now is the time for bold action.”
“The reason Ted Kennedy’s seat is no longer controlled by a Democrat is clear: Washington’s inability to deliver the change voters demanded in November 2008. Make no mistake, political paralysis resulted in electoral failure,” Stern said.
“We were given control of the House and Senate in 2006, we won the White House in 2008, we have to deliver, we have to lead. And if we don’t, I think people will rightfully question you know how well this has really turned out,” he said. “So we have to really lead on this and have the courage to do so.”