WASHINGTON — Remember the Republicans?
Congressional Democrats increasingly are concerned that their constituents are doing just that as the Senate health care plan's prospects for passage before Christmas look more uncertain and polls find that the legislation is becoming more unpopular.
Democrats realize that they have a huge sales job.
"It is very hard," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of the effort, "because there has been a mischaracterization campaign going on for a long time. I don't have to tell you that."
Officially, Democrats complain daily that the Republicans' chief goal is to embarrass them and President Barack Obama while offering no realistic remedies to health care crises or, for that matter, any domestic problems.
"They've made it perfectly clear that they have no interest in cooperating," charged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as he opened debate Thursday. "But the families and businesses who are suffering, hurting and dying every single day have no time for these kinds of games
Republicans have a terse reply.
"The American people are clearly asking us to do all we can to stop this bill," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
What's apparent in all the wrangling is that the Republicans, who control only 40 of the Senate's 100 seats and 177 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats, slowly are becoming players in this Congress.
They nearly derailed a $154 billion job-creation bill this week in the House, and as the Senate struggles to finish health care legislation in the last days before its self-imposed Christmas target, Republicans matter even more.
Because they won't agree to limit debate, the Democrats must muster 60 votes to cut it off. Democrats aren't assured of that number, however, after Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., rejected a compromise plan on abortion Thursday. Nelson is an ardent abortion foe, and he wants strict limits on federal funding for it.
For days, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has been trying to broker a compromise, and he's proposed new initiatives to discourage teen pregnancy and provide tax breaks for adoptive parents.
Nelson said no. "There's a lot of improvement," he told Lincoln, Neb., radio station KLIN, "but the basic question of funding for abortion has not been fully answered yet."
Even if Democrats can get 60 votes, Republicans can employ other delaying tactics, such as insisting that the entire text of the health care legislation be read on the Senate floor.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., led an effort Wednesday to read a 767-page Democratic amendment. It took about three hours to read the first 139 pages_ about 15 minutes just to read the table of contents _until Democrats gave up and withdrew the proposal.
That's not an option once the final health care overhaul language comes to the floor, however, because withdrawing that plan, which would contain all the carefully crafted Democratic compromises of recent days, would doom efforts to pass it before Dec. 25. So might granting Republicans the opportunity to read the entire measure, which could run a few hundred pages.
Underlying these tactics is a broader question: Are Republicans more in tune with constituents' wishes or risking being seen as stubborn obstructionists?
A Pew Research Center survey Dec. 9-13 found that 48 percent "generally oppose" the congressional health care plans. Then again, the same survey found that 29 percent approved of the job that Republican congressional leaders were doing, compared with 36 percent approval for Democrats.
Democrats realize that they have to keep pushing hard.
"We are in a 'define or be defined' occupation," Pelosi said. "And for too long, (Republicans) have had the opportunity to define (the debate) in the absence of a bill. We should have had a bill months ago, in my view."
Democrats know they can't stop at health care. They say they're addressing the biggest issue of the day, job creation.
When the House passed the jobs bill Wednesday night, 174 Republicans voted against it, as did 38 Democrats. The measure passed 217-212.
Republicans saw the close vote as evidence that Democrats are nervous about their own proposals.
"I hope she does a great job marketing all the garbage they passed this past year," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said of Pelosi.
"Why don't we just put everyone in the United States on the federal government payroll and call it a day?" Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, asked sarcastically.
The jobs bill still needs Senate approval, and consideration is unlikely until next year. Senators spent Thursday debating defense spending, and they plan to return to the health care struggle later this week.
The usually dour McConnell seemed almost upbeat Thursday as he surveyed the congressional landscape.
"It's clear," he said of the Democrats, "that they're in a state of confusion."
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