WASHINGTON — A stinging loss Tuesday in Massachusetts has cost President Barack Obama and the Democrats their 60-vote Senate majority, sending health care overhaul to the emergency room in fragile condition.
The president's top domestic initiative is not dead by any means, and leaders vowed to push ahead as if the damage could be repaired.
But rank-and-file Democrats splintered on how to save the bill even before the Massachusetts results were official. Republicans said don't even bother: The election of state Sen. Scott Brown sent a message that the health care bill should be scrapped.
Obama and party leaders anxiously worked through fallback options — none good. The main idea involves persuading House Democrats to pass a Senate bill that many have serious problems with. Another alternative calls for Senate Democrats to promise to make changes to the bill later on.
Democrats don't appear to have enough time to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills — and get cost and coverage estimates back from the Congressional Budget Office — before Brown is sworn in.
"How do we do it with 59?" lamented liberal Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.
Independents turned against the sweeping health care legislation and the Democratic base lost its enthusiasm, Weiner continued. Democratic lawmakers must show they got the message by regrouping, considering a time-out on health care and perhaps passing a more modest bill, he argued.
Moderate Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the Senate should not hold any further votes on health care until Brown is seated.
But other Democrats said they feel the need to act even more urgently.
"There is only one guarantee — that if we don't pass something the notion of trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again is a real long shot," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., son of the late senator. "If you understand the legislative process, it's a lot easier to pass something and fix it later."
The legislation would expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans now uninsured, while attempting to rein in health care costs.