WASHINGTON - - President Barack Obama's campaign to overhaul the nation's health care system is officially on the back burner as Democrats turn to the task of stimulating job growth, but behind the scenes senior Democrats have settled on a strategy to salvage the massive legislation.
They are meeting almost daily to plot legislative moves while gently persuading skittish rank-and-file lawmakers to back a sweeping bill.
This effort is deliberately being undertaken quietly as Democrats work to focus attention on more popular initiatives to bring down unemployment, a tactic used by the president in his State of the Union address this past week.
Many have concluded that the only hope for resuscitating the health care legislation is to push the issue off the front page and give lawmakers time to work out a new compromise and shift public perception of the bill.
"A little bit of time and quiet could help," said Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a conservative Democrat who was among a group of centrist Democrats from the House and Senate who met last week to discuss a way forward on health care.
"Human nature being what it is, it's always easier to be against something than to be for it. And if you create any uncertainty with change, opponents can jump on that and just try to scare people. ... That has been hard to overcome politically," Pryor said. "Maybe over time, people will have a chance to understand what is in the legislation."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, particularly want to give members time to recover from the shock of Republican Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race Jan. 19.
In coming weeks, however, they plan to rally House Democrats behind the health care bill passed by the Senate while simultaneously trying to persuade Senate Democrats to approve a series of changes to the legislation using budget procedures that bar filibusters.
Meanwhile, leading consumer groups, doctors and labor unions that have backed health care reform are stepping up attempts to stiffen lawmakers' resolve.
Drew Altman, who heads the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, said Democrats might have little choice but to take this approach.
"In a 24-hour news cycle, with the Internet and bloggers and cable news, sometimes a lot more can be accomplished, especially with health care, when it happens behind closed doors," Altman said.
Democrats, who would almost certainly get no Republican votes for their bill, still must overcome substantial obstacles.
Some Democrats would prefer to vote on a series of more limited bills targeting pieces of the health care system, an approach that House leaders are exploring. A group of liberal House lawmakers is pushing for inclusion of a new government insurance plan, or public option, in the final bill.
Tensions also remain high between Democrats in the House and Senate. Many House lawmakers blame the Senate bill for fueling public opposition with provisions such as a new tax on high-end "Cadillac" health plans and special aid for Nebraska that was added at the 11th hour to satisfy that state's Democratic senator.
Democrats hope to use a process known as budget reconciliation, which allows budget-related legislation to be passed with a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60-vote majority that has become necessary in the face of Republican filibusters.
But many House Democrats do not want to vote on the Senate bill until the Senate passes the fixes they want.
Despite the hurdles, there is a growing consensus that a modified Senate bill might be the best way to enact health care reform.
"The more they think about it, the more they can appreciate that it may be a viable ... vehicle for getting health care reform done," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., president of the Democratic freshman class in the House.
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