WASHINGTON – After insisting for a year that failure was not an option, President Barack Obama is now acknowledging his health care overhaul may die in Congress.
His remarks at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday night sounded contradictory at times, complicating congressional leaders' effort to revive health care legislation as Democrats hunger for guidance from the White House. Even while saying he still wanted to get the job done, Obama counseled going slow, and bowed to new political realities. Democrats no longer command a filibuster-proof Senate majority, and voters and lawmakers are far more concerned with jobs and the economy than with enacting sweeping and expensive changes to the health system.
"I think it's very important for us to have a methodical, open process over the next several weeks, and then let's go ahead and make a decision," Obama said Thursday night.
"And it may be that ... if Congress decides we're not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not," the president said. "And that's how democracy works. There will be elections coming up and they'll be able to make a determination and register their concerns one way or the other during election time."
It seemed to be a shift in tone for the issue Obama campaigned on and made the centerpiece of his domestic agenda last year.
"Here's the key, is to not let the moment slip away," Obama also said.
Sweeping health legislation to extend medical coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans passed both chambers of Congress last year and was on the verge of completion before Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in a Massachusetts special U.S. Senate election last month. Brown was sworn in Thursday, giving Republicans 41 votes, enough to block the initiatives of the Democratic majority.
Now the health legislation hangs in limbo. Lawmakers are looking to Obama for a path forward, but he has not publicly offered specifics. His signals have been mixed. At the DNC event he said Republicans should be part of the process — something they've shown little interest in and that would doubtlessly drag out a legislative effort that many rank-and-file Democrats want to end quickly. The health care bill has become unpopular with the public and a political drag for lawmakers.
"The next step is what I announced at the State of the Union, which is to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas. What I'd like to do is have a meeting whereby I'm sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts, and let's just go through these bills. ... And then I think that we've got to go ahead and move forward on a vote," Obama said Thursday.
"But as I said at the State of the Union, I think we should be very deliberate, take our time. We're going to be moving a jobs package forward over the next several weeks; that's the thing that's most urgent right now in the minds of Americans all across the country."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday that there is no meeting set yet for the president to talk over health care strategy with Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
"There's nothing on the block on this right now," he said. "But I think this just goes to the president continuing to want to hear ideas."
Bipartisan congressional leaders are planning to join Obama at the White House on Tuesday, but Gibbs reiterated that the meeting will be centered on how to create jobs and boost the economy.
Obama had also said Thursday night that "we've got to move forward on a vote" on health care. When asked what the president meant by that, Gibbs said only that White House officials are "still working with Capitol Hill on the best way forward."
Obama's comments came just hours after he met Thursday afternoon with Democratic congressional leaders, but the discussion focused mostly on jobs, and the leaders emerged with no announcement about a path ahead for health care. Rank-and-file Democrats are eager for them to settle on one by the end of next week, after which lawmakers will return to their states and districts for a weeklong recess where they'll likely face questions from voters on the issue.
Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, said Friday that the White House has not requested a sit-down on health care with Republicans.
"The president wants to start over on health care? Sen. McConnell's been saying that for months," said Stewart.