Giving up on overhauling the nation's health care system is not an option, the top House Democrat said Wednesday as lawmakers looked to President Barack Obama for guidance in his State of the Union address on how to revive the stalled legislation.
Asked if Congress might abandon a health care initiative beset with political and policy problems, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded: "I don't see that as a possibility. We will have something."
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told congressional staff that Obama will use Wednesday night's address to reiterate his commitment to an ambitious remake of the nation's health care system, similar to the call he issued last September after critics seized the momentum during a summer of angry town hall meetings.
Although lawmakers don't expect to hear a specific prescription for how to move forward, Pfeiffer said the president would offer "additional details" on his health care goals.
The speech comes as Democrats are struggling to find a way to advance health care legislation after the loss of a Massachusetts Senate seat last week cost them the 60-vote majority needed to deliver.
"The president is a strong persuader, as they say, and I think it makes an awful lot of difference, and I think he will bring everybody together," said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.
Others were looking for a dose of reality from the president.
"I think he has to acknowledge that the well has been poisoned, that the debate has been lost, and tell the American people again why this is part of the economic strategy moving forward," said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa. "Not an issue of fairness because we need to cover everybody, but it's the only way we're going to get our deficit in order in the long run is by addressing health care."
Democrats got encouragement Wednesday from groups as diverse as the nation's Catholic bishops and the head of the largest labor union federation. In a letter to members of Congress, the bishops urged lawmakers to "recommit themselves to enacting genuine health care reform."
"The health care debate, with all its political and ideological conflict, seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority, which is to ensure that affordable, quality, life-giving care is available to all," said clergy from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Now is not the time to abandon this task."
Similarly, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the Senate should come up with a measure that the House can pass. "We fought too long and too hard for health care to quit for now," Trumka said in an interview.
Both the Catholic Church and labor unions have flexed their political muscle in the debate. The bishops say they won't support a final bill that includes Senate-passed language they see as too weak in restricting taxpayer funding for abortion. Labor unions struck a deal with the White House to weaken a proposed tax on high-cost insurance plans.
Pelosi didn't say whether the final bill will be the sweeping overhaul sought by Obama, or smaller-scale legislation that accomplishes only some of his goals. Democrats were on the verge of passing far-reaching legislation before the Massachusetts election.
Stunned by the loss, Democratic leaders have taken health care legislation off the fast track as they try to find a path forward acceptable to rank-and-file Democrats wary of unhappy midterm election voters.
The leading option for moving forward — having the House pass the Senate bill along with a package of changes that both chambers would approve — will take weeks, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday. That's time most lawmakers would much rather spend focusing on jobs and the economy, the concerns they say preoccupy their constituents. Many believe health care has become a political drag.
In a sign of the turmoil surrounding the issue, some House Democrats have begun pushing to revive a proposal for a government-run insurance plan left for dead months ago after it became clear it could not command the necessary votes in the Senate.
The House and Senate separately passed 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bills last year to remake the nation's medical system with new requirements for nearly everyone to carry health insurance and new regulations on insurers' practices. Negotiators were in the final stages of reconciling the differences between the two measures before last week's GOP upset in the race for the Senate seat long held by the late Edward M. Kennedy.