Senators slam the door on liberal hopes to revive health care 

Hopes to revive health care reform in Congress continued to fade as Democratic leaders scramble to draft a new agenda addressing the nation's economic woes.

Meeting the day before President Obama's State of the Union address, Senate Democrats didn't utter a word about health care reform at their caucus lunch even though weeks earlier, their sole focus had been on passing a bill in time for the president's speech.

"Unfortunately the American people are facing several challenges at this point and we've got to address them all," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who has had a poor showing in recent re-election polls. "Jobs is the foremost among them. I think we ought to focus on that like a laser."

The House has passed a $154 billion spending package aimed at job creation and is waiting for action in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is in discussions with the House about how to proceed with health care reform but has no idea when a decision will be made.

"There is no rush," Reid said, suggesting a health care bill could be taken up any time this year.

Reid has no choice but to slow down because his rank-and-file members don't like the ideas being put forward by some liberal groups to revive the legislation that was dropped after Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown won in an upset in Massachusetts.

The main proposal being backed by the Left, including Obama transition director and liberal advocacy group head John Podesta, would require the House to clear the $900 billion Senate bill and then send it back to the Senate to make changes through the use of a parliamentary procedure called budget reconciliation. Reconciliation would skirt the Senate requirement for 60 votes, a threshold now out of reach for Democrats with Brown's election -- at least as far as the legislation crafted by Obama and congressional leaders over the last year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already said she lacks the votes in her caucus to pass the Senate bill. And the idea is seen as risky in the Senate, particularly with politically vulnerable moderate Democrats.

"My concern is that if reconciliation is used, that will really destroy any prospect of bipartisan cooperation on anything else for the remainder of the year," Bayh said. "And it's something I think the American public would not react well to."

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., also rejected the reconciliation route.

"I just think it's time for us to find the common ground we need to finally get something done and I don't think the reconciliation is the process that gets us to common ground," she said.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., whose poll numbers dropped in the wake of his support of the Senate health care bill, said health care reform is now completely up in the air.

"I don't have any idea and I don't know that anybody else necessarily does," Nelson said, when asked about the future of health care reform. "I certainly think we need to go to jobs and the economy and I'm glad the president is directing us toward that."

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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