WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives can't pass the Senate's health care bill in its present form, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, which is a potentially lethal setback for Democratic efforts to salvage health legislation.
"In its present form, without any changes, I don't think it's possible to pass the Senate bill in the House," Pelosi told a news conference. "I don't see the votes for it at this time."
The White House bowed to the need to pause on health care.
"The president believes it is the exact right thing to do, by giving this some time, by letting the dust settle, if you will, and looking for the best path forward," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.
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At the same time, he stressed that President Barack Obama still wants an overhaul.
"If we don't do anything, it will only get worse in the days to come," Gibbs said.
The White House and congressional leaders had been reeling for the past two days over the message from Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown upset Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election Tuesday to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy last August. Brown's victory was rooted largely in voter anger, particularly over the health care bill, which he opposes.
Paying a courtesy call to Capitol Hill on Thursday, Brown said he agreed with suggestions that Democrats should scrap their health care proposal and start over.
"I think people have lost confidence," Brown said. "I think that's evidence that they're talking now about that . . . the backroom deals, people are outraged about that. . . . We've kind of lost our way."
Brown said that as a state senator he'd supported legislation to provide universal health care coverage to Massachusetts residents.
"The bill that was being pushed in Washington was not good for Massachusetts," he said. "It may have been good for other states, but we already had everything, and a lot of what was being proposed . . . is not good for Massachusetts."
Other Republicans continued to portray Brown's election as a condemnation of Democratic-crafted health care legislation and of Obama's approach to governing.
"The process by which that bill was being made actually sickened the public," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va. "Closed-door meetings, senators trading hundreds of millions of dollars as if those taxpayer dollars belonged to them; it turned off the public. That's not what this administration promised, nor the (Democratic) majority."
Democratic lawmakers have been delicately crafting health care legislation for the past year, and the House and Senate passed different versions last month. Those bills need to be reconciled, and each chamber must pass one final version for it to become law.
The easiest path for the legislation would be for the House to approve the Senate bill. That way, it wouldn't have to go back to the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles. Brown, who's expected to be sworn in next month, would be the 41st Republican vote in the 100-member Senate.
Pelosi spent much of Wednesday in private meetings with different House Democratic groups, including the 52 conservative Blue Dogs, and later the liberals.
She concluded that there were too many objections to the Senate's bill. Many Democrats, she said, disapprove of the Senate's 40 percent excise tax on high-end health insurance policies. Others dislike the special funding for Medicaid — the federal-state health insurance program for lower-income people — that would go to Nebraska.
Pelosi wouldn't rule out trying to resurrect some kind of bill, but she wanted to take a few days and continue consulting with her members.
"We have to know what our possibilities are," she said. "We're not in a big rush."
At a morning meeting of their caucus, not a single Democrat spoke in favor of passing the Senate bill, said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., according to Congressional Quarterly. Instead, there was much conversation among rank-and-file Democrats about passing only the most politically popular pieces of the health care overhaul.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said that there was "great interest" in passing elements of the bill "in bite-size pieces," CQ reported.
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