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White House Warns Against Dropping Health Care As Party Grows Skittish

First Posted: 03/21/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:15 PM ET

Democratic officials were roiled by the news on Tuesday night that the supermajority they held in Congress, and the legislative possibilities that came with it, were lost with the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat.

Among officials on Capitol Hill there was a sense of lost opportunity. Six-and-a-half months have passed with the party holding 60 seats in the United States Senate. But the chief policy objective in that time frame -- the passage of health care reform -- has not been accomplished. Absent that signature political achievement, and with a climate toxic for incumbents, top party strategists were charting out a new course for a new Congress even before the final Massachusetts votes were cast.

In a push to set the stage, the White House came out forcefully in favor of getting health care reform passed into law, raising the specter of even more political damage should legislation remain un-passed.

"We need to move forward aggressively, continuing on job creation, and on financial regulatory reform," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Huffington Post. "But we should finish health care because the caricature of that bill is there and everyone who voted for it will have to live with that. The way to deal with that is to pass the bill and let people see... the value of it."

"It is not just getting the achievement under the belt," Axelrod added. "I think there are tangible benefits that people will accrue across this country as soon as this bill is signed. They will have more leverage, have more prescription drug coverage, Medicare is going to be extended by a decade... If we don't pass it and [Obama] doesn't sign it than the caricature created by the insurance industry and opponents in Congress will prevail and everyone will have to live with that. There is no political sense to that and I hope people will see that and move forward."

But many in the party are skittish about signing on to legislation that has grown politically unpopular. Several House Democrats who spoke to the Huffington Post expressed wariness about the prospect of passing the Senate's bill pro forma. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), on Tuesday night, warned that it would not be "fair and prudent" for his colleagues to move forward on health care until the body's newest senator was seated. House Financial Service Committee chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) echoed Webb later in the night.

The divergence over the best way forward could, officials warn, do far more damage to Democrats than the loss of a singular Senate seat -- with infighting essentially breeding inaction. One labor official, when read Webb's statement, responded bluntly: "The American people need results. If the situation were reversed, no Republican would ever say that. They would pass their bill.

"The million-dollar question is where are they going to go?" the source added. "If they stand up and fight for what they campaigned on, the people will stand with them. If, like some senators are already calling for, [they] run to the center, don't hold votes because 'it's not fair,' they are going to endanger their entire agenda."

Far more of the Democratic agenda is at stake than just health care. Climate change legislation, one Senate aide predicted, is now as good as lost; financial regulatory reform is far more of an uphill battle. The Employee Free Choice Act -- already hanging on by a thread -- is even more in doubt.

"There are people in the Senate who thought that Republicans would come to us in good faith on issues," said one Senate aide. "This should convince them that that's not the case. Their interest is to win and for us to lose."

If the policy landscape for Democrats looks a bit grimmer after Tuesday night, the political one seems even worse. The mojo the party had in the past two election cycles has passed, fumbled away to an amorphous anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-Wall Street crowd. And the poll numbers released this past week by prominent Democratic consultants Stan Greenberg and James Carville truly tell the story: While 46 percent of the GOP is intensely excited about the elections of 2010, just 33 percent of Democrats feel the same way.

"This needs to be a wake up call that people are still demanding change," Joe Trippi, a longtime party strategist and high-ranking official on the Howard Dean and John Edwards campaigns told the Huffington Post. "I don't think it is ideological, I don't think it is left versus right. I think it is outsider versus insider. It is the new way versus people doing it the old way. That is still the carryover from 2008. And whether the Obama administration recognizes that is important. This is a wake up call that they can't play the inside game."

"The most important thing is for Democrats to acknowledge that they need to change course and then to change course," said Simon Rosenberg, a former Clinton administration official and head of the Democratic group NDN. "They must acknowledge it has not been a good first year and they have to change. The most important option for that in the whole year will be the State of The Union speech next week. The stakes couldn't be higher."

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