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Healthcare bill may take a back seat

Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill, struggling to figure out how to resuscitate their stalled healthcare overhaul, are looking to move away from the politically explosive issue and turn to other legislation -- especially efforts to stimulate job growth.

That could put off any formal debate of healthcare legislation for weeks, if not longer, senior lawmakers and Democratic officials said Friday. But it would allow the rattled party to focus on a more popular issue with voters while calming Democratic anxiety over healthcare in the wake of this week’s Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate election.

Speaking with reporters after a meeting of Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), one of the lead architects of the healthcare legislation, called for “a breather.”

House Democrats, most of whom returned to their districts Thursday, suspended healthcare strategizing on Friday.

Congressional Democrats and White House officials have been discussing two possible strategies for passing some form of healthcare legislation despite losing a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Under one scenario, the House would pass the bill approved in the Senate just before Christmas; that would send the bill directly to President Obama for his signature. Then, both chambers would adopt a series of changes to the legislation sought by House Democrats through a process called budget reconciliation that requires only 51 votes in the Senate.

Senior Democrats also are exploring ways to scale back the healthcare bills developed last year.

Both approaches would require time to develop legislative language and to try to build support among jittery rank-and-file lawmakers.

Democrats may be able to draw on residual support for major elements of the health overhaul, a new poll by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation suggested.

More than 60% of those surveyed said they would be more likely to support healthcare legislation if it expanded the Medicaid program for the poor, helped seniors on Medicare buy prescription drugs or guaranteed that all Americans could get insurance -- even if they are sick.

More than 70% said they would back a bill that included tax credits for small businesses that provide their workers with health benefits.

Many people do not realize those proposals are in the Democratic healthcare legislation, however. And the overall bills remain very unpopular. Just 42% of Americans say they believe the country would be better off if Congress passed “healthcare reform,” down from 59% about a year ago, the Kaiser survey found.

That has helped fuel calls for a smaller piece of legislation.

But many healthcare experts and leading advocates of an overhaul worry that a scaled-back bill would have only minimal effect and could trigger costly and unpopular consequences -- largely because so many parts of the healthcare system are interconnected and tinkering with one causes problems in another.

On Friday, Obama, who earlier in the week seemed to endorse a scaled-back approach, defended a more ambitious agenda.

“This is our best chance to do it,” he said during an appearance in Ohio. “We can’t keep on putting this off.”

noam.levey@latimes.com


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