WASHINGTON — Chastened by the Democratic Senate loss in Massachusetts, President Barack Obama and congressional allies signaled Wednesday they may try to scale back his sweeping health care overhaul in an effort to at least keep parts of it alive. A simpler, less ambitious bill emerged as an alternative only hours after the loss of the party’s crucial 60th Senate seat forced the Democrats to slow their all-out drive to pass Obama’s signature legislation despite fierce Republican opposition. The White House is still hoping the House can pass the Senate bill in a quick strike, but Democrats are now considering other options.
What is possible?No decisions have been made, lawmakers said, but they laid out a new approach that could still include these provisions: limiting the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage to people with medical problems, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies, helping small businesses and low-income people pay premiums and changing Medicare to encourage payment for quality care instead of sheer volume of services. The goal of trying to cover nearly all Americans would be put off further into the future. Obama urged lawmakers not to try to jam a bill through, but scale the proposal down to what he called "those elements of the package that people agree on.” "We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people,” the president said in an interview with ABC News. "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. And we know that small businesses are going to need help,” he said. One potential Republican convert for health care legislation remained an enigma. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who has been in regular contact with Obama, roundly criticized the Democrats’ hard push to pass their bill. But she would not rule out voting for something in the end. Asked if the Democratic bills are dead, Snowe responded: "I never say anything is dead, but clearly I think they have to revisit the entire issue.” Some Democrats weren’t ready for that, despite the president’s new words. One option, still alive and stirring strong emotions, called for the House to quickly pass the Senate version of the broader bill — simply accepting it and therefore bypassing the Senate problem created by the loss of the Massachusetts seat to Republican Scott Brown. But that appeared to be losing favor. "That’s a bitter pill for the House to swallow,” said the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. "Full speed ahead is off the table,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota. "We are still very much in the exercise of drawing meaning from the public disquiet.” Nevertheless, the quick approach remained on the table, despite some House members’ deep misgivings. In fact, administration officials were working behind the scenes on that idea, which would be the fastest and cleanest route to getting a bill to Obama, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe private talks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were gauging support for the idea among liberals and moderates. The initial reaction was not encouraging. "If you ran that Senate bill right now on the House floor, I’ll bet you would not get 100 votes for it,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. It takes 218 votes to pass legislation. A majority of House Democrats oppose a tax on high-cost insurance plans in the Senate bill that unions see as a direct hit on their members. Stupak and other abortion opponents, backed by Catholic bishops, say the Senate bill falls short in restricting taxpayer dollars for abortion. Trying to push the Senate bill through would be a desperate ploy seen as such by voters, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s 2008 presidential rival. "If they try to jam it through the House, they’ll pay a very heavy price.” As the day wore on, those urging moderation seemed to be winning the argument. "We’re not going to rush into anything,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We will wait until the new senator arrives.”