Democrats retreated Tuesday from a quick push to pass President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, lacking a workable strategy to salvage the sweeping legislation that has consumed Congress for more than a year.
"There is no rush," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after a meeting of Senate Democrats. His comments came as two centrists said they would oppose the plan Democratic leaders were considering to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills and put comprehensive legislation on Obama's desk.
A week after the loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat — their 60th vote — cost Democrats undisputed control of the congressional agenda, leaders are still casting about for a way forward. Given the congressional schedule, it could be weeks — late February at the earliest — before they act.
"There are no easy choices," acknowledged House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md, insisting that the goal remains the same: to pass far-reaching legislation that would expand coverage, reduce costs and improve quality.
"I think right now it's a time-out and the leadership is re-evaluating," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "They've asked us to keep our powder dry."
"I think effectively we're going to set health care reform aside," said independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. "I don't think they're ready to move now because there's no clear path forward."
Reid said he'll keep talking with House Democrats and White House officials, noting that the Senate-passed bill is good for the year.
Two centrist senators threw up a new roadblock. Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. — both face re-election this year in Republican-leaning states — said they would oppose using a special budget-related procedure to go around Republican opponents in the Senate, a calculated risk sure to inflame critics on the political right.
Even as Bayh and Lincoln made their concerns known, House Democratic leaders were trying to get their rank and file to accept a modified version of the Senate bill.
Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat, told reporters he believes the House could pass the Senate bill if lawmakers get rid of special Medicaid deals for Louisiana and Nebraska and dial back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it "depends what the fixes are."
Lawmakers hope Obama will help them find their way when the president delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday. Obama is unlikely to delve into the strategy for passing a health care bill, Hoyer said, but he is expected to stress the importance of getting comprehensive legislation along the lines of what the House and Senate already passed.
Democrats now have four options, Hoyer said: No bill, a scaled-back measure designed to attract some Republican support, the House passing the Senate bill, or the House passing the Senate bill with both chambers making changes to bridge their differences.
Opposition to the health care remake in Washington helped spark the Massachusetts revolt, Democrats acknowledge. Obama called the monthslong debate on Capitol Hill "an ugly process."
"It looks like there are a bunch of back-room deals," the president said in an interview with ABC News.
Of the four options that Hoyer outlined, only one has been ruled out. Pelosi said last week she does not have the votes to pass the Senate bill without any changes.
Democratic leaders are coalescing around the idea of the House passing the Senate bill, with both chambers agreeing to follow-up legislation that would settle major differences.
The strategy calls for the Senate to use a budget-related procedure — reconciliation_ that requires only 51 votes to advance. Even so, leaders may not be able to round up the votes.
"My concern is that if reconciliation is used, that will really destroy any prospects for bipartisan cooperation on anything else for the remainder of this year," Bayh said. "That would be a regrettable state of affairs, something I think the American public would not react well to."
"I will not accept any last-minute efforts to force changes to health insurance reform through budget reconciliation," Lincoln said in a statement.