WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray said Wednesday that Democrats should move forward with health care reform despite the loss of a critical Senate seat in a Massachusetts special election.
But the Washington state Democrat, a member of the Senate leadership, is not sure how Democrats should proceed given the election of a Republican to a Senate seat long held by Democrats and the resulting loss of her party's critical 60-seat majority.
"I don't see anyone in my caucus saying we shouldn't do it," Murray said. "But I'm not sure what the path forward is."
Washington's other senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, said it was unclear what will happen next, but that didn't mean Democrats should give up.
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"I don't think it is over," Cantwell said. "But people are thinking about the consequences of what happened. We should take time to do it right."
Other members of the Washington state congressional delegation said Democrats needed to step back and consider changes to the current bills.
"Clearly we are going to have to slow down and find a different direction," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. "I don't think we should try to jam it through. We need to work with the new Senate."
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., agreed.
"I hope we reconsider everything at this juncture," Dicks said. "I hope we can salvage something out of this, but I've got to say it looks bleak."
The comments by Murray, Dicks and Smith came as Democratic congressional leaders met to discuss how to proceed. Republicans were clearly energized by Scott Brown's victory over Democrat Martha Coakley and urged Democrats to start over on a health care bill.
Dicks and Smith clearly saw the outcome in the Massachusetts election as a reflection of the public's growing anger not just over the Democrats health care bill but other parts of their agenda.
"It was a defeat, a very significant defeat," Dicks said. "There is no question there is a lot of anger out there."
Smith said the Massachusetts result was an expression of the "overall dissatisfaction" voters have with the direction the country is moving.
Neither congressman thought this year's election would be a rerun of 1994, when Republicans startled the Democratic majority and gained control of Congress.
"In many ways I view this as an opportunity," Smith said. "It's better this should happen in January than October."
Murray declined to speculate too broadly about the meaning of the Massachusetts setback for Democrats.
"I'm not from Massachusetts," she said.
But the senator said there was clearly a lot of anxiety among voters.
"I know people are worried their economic security has been undermined," Murray said. "An unstable economy makes them nervous."
As for health care, Murray said the problems remain regardless of the outcome of one special election.
"I don't think the problem has gone away for people who don't have health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, for people whose rates have gone up or for people filling the emergency rooms," she said. "We have to address these challenges. We have an obligation as the majority party to address these issues."
The Massachusetts result could also have implications for Murray's re-election campaign, though it is too soon to tell what the impact may be.
"If Democrats can't sell their agenda in the bluest state in the country, they can't sell it anywhere," Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. "To that end, it will have a significant ripple effect on campaigns across the country."
So far, five Republicans have officially entered the Washington Senate race, but national GOP leaders could be looking for a higher-profile candidate. One name mentioned has been Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. But so far, Reichert hasn't shown interest.
"We've been saying we can't take anything for granted," said Carol Albert, Murray's campaign manager. "It's hard to say what things will look like in this race."
Murray handily won her 2004 campaign, defeating then Republican Rep. George Nethercutt by 12 percentage points in a race that was initially expected to be closer.
As of Sept. 30, Murray had $4.6 million in her campaign account.