WASHINGTON — Democratic efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system stalled on Wednesday — and could be scaled back substantially — as suddenly somber lawmakers struggled to absorb the aftershock of Republican Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race.
Brown, who upset Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley Tuesday in one of the nation's most reliably Democratic states, will become the Republicans' 41st seat when he takes office, probably in about two weeks.
If Republicans maintain their unity — as they have for months — with 41 votes they can block Democratic action on almost anything.
The Democrats' 60-vote partisan strategy for ramming legislation through thus far now appears dead. Instead, Democrats in Congress echoed a message they heard from President Barack Obama:
"Here's one thing I know and I just want to make sure that this is off the table," the president told ABC News. "The Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated. People in Massachusetts have spoken. He's got to be part of that process."
After meeting privately for about two hours on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats agreed to slow down their health care crusade.
"We're not going to rush into anything," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. "As you've heard, we're going to wait until the new senator arrives before we do anything more on health care."
Obama also advised Congress to "move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the (health-care) package that people agree on."
Democratic lawmakers, and apparently some Republicans, generally agree on barring insurers from denying coverage or charging more because of pre-existing medical conditions, helping people pay for policies, and ending separate rates for people because of gender.
Flashpoints in the legislation now in jeopardy include how much, if at all, government should get involved in either running an insurance plan or encouraging multi-state private plans to compete with existing insurers. Lawmakers have also been at odds over whether taxes should be raised to help pay for the expansion of coverage.
Liberal Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives also confront two blocs whose political outlook suddenly changed with Tuesday's election results — moderate Democrats and all Republicans.
Centrist Democrats signaled that they fear that the mood evident in Massachusetts has spread into their states and districts and could boost their opponents in November's mid-term congressional elections. That may make them less inclined to follow Obama's lead.
"The only way we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., told ABC News. "Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country — that's not going to work too well."
Jubilant Republicans feel newly empowered and want to be more active players in shaping legislation. Heretofore Democrats have shut them out, while most Republicans have shunned making sincere efforts to compromise.
Democrats acknowledged Wednesday that they need to show more sensitivity to the concerns of a public battered by the worst recession in 70 years, as ordinary Americans still routinely see foreclosures in their neighborhoods, a financial system where banks don't seem to be punished for irresponsible behavior and a government perhaps too eager to inject itself into their health care decisions.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., urged giving new attention to a jobs-creation package, a view echoed by other moderates who returned this week from a winter recess saying their constituents are more worried about the economy than overhauling the nation's health care system.
"The time for doing health care has narrowed substantially," Casey said. "We've got to get back to jobs and come up with a specific short-term strategy to create jobs."
Republicans, who have rarely cooperated with Democrats in this Congress, said they are ready now to do business with Democrats.
"What we ought to do...is stop, start over, go step by step and concentrate on fixing the problem, which is rising costs" said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "They (American people) don't want the government taking over health care."
The new Senate math is likely to impact health care legislation most. Legislation to create jobs or tighten financial regulation traditionally has drawn some GOP support, as long as it doesn't involve higher taxes.
But Republican leaders have made opposition to the Democrats' health care overhaul a virtual litmus test of party loyalty. When the House and Senate voted on their versions of the legislation late last year, only one Republican — Louisiana's Joseph Cao — voted yes.
Some Democrats accept that rethinking is in order.
"The size of this (health care bill) troubles people," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "It's worth taking some time and having the president go out there and go over it piece by piece. Right now he's only talking in general terms."
Alternatively, the House may simply vote on the health-care version that the Senate passed Dec. 24. If the House approved it without changes, Obama's signature would enact it into law.
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that accepting the Senate bill would be better than doing nothing.
"I think it would be devastating not to make some progress," Davis said. "I'm certainly of the idea that some is better than none."
However, liberals object to the Senate's proposed tax on high-end insurance policies, and anti-abortion Democrats dislike the Senate's less restrictive policies on federal funds.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she would resist having the House vote up-or-down on the Senate measure, though she might support tinkering with it.
"It's clear we're not voting for the Senate bill straight up without fixes," she said. "Why did we work our fannies off to put together a compromise House bill to throw it away and vote for the Senate's?"
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