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Democratic congressional leaders strategize to pass health bill

WASHINGTON - Democratic congressional leaders are coalescing around their last, best hope for salvaging President Barack Obama's sweeping health care overhaul.

Their plan is to pass the Senate bill with some changes to accommodate House Democrats, senior Democratic aides said yesterday.

Leaders will present the idea to the rank and file this week, but it's unclear if they have enough votes to carry it out.

Last week's victory by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts cost Democrats the 60th vote they need to maintain undisputed control of the Senate, jeopardizing the outcome of the health care bill just when Obama had brokered a final deal on most of the major issues.

The new strategy is as politically risky as it is bold. There is widespread support for Obama's goals of expanding coverage to nearly all Americans while trying to slow costs. But polls show the public is deeply skeptical of the Democratic bills, and Republicans would certainly accuse Democrats of ignoring voters' wishes.

Obama initially voiced doubts last week that a comprehensive bill was still viable, but he now seems to be pushing for it. Asked yesterday if the president was backing away from his pursuit of major changes, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded: "No."

"I think the president believes that the circumstances that led him to undertake greater security for people in their health care . . . existed last year, last week, and this week," Gibbs added.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week she does not have the votes to pass the Senate bill without changes.

Democratic congressional aides said the latest strategy involves using a special budget procedure to revise the Senate bill. The procedural route - known as reconciliation - would allow a majority of 51 senators to amend their bill to address some of the major substantive concerns raised by the House. That would circumvent the need for a 60-vote majority to hold off Republican delaying tactics.

The remaining alternatives are unappealing: scaling back the health care bill to less controversial, smaller pieces, or setting it aside altogether.

Momentum is growing to pass the Senate bill with compromises agreed on by the president and congressional leaders, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group. "Are they there yet? No," he said.

Among those arguing for a quick strike on health care is David Plouffe, the political adviser who helped elect Obama president and has just been summoned back by the White House to help coordinate this year's elections.

"I know that the short-term politics are bad," Plouffe argued in a Washington Post op-ed. "But politically speaking, if we do not pass it, the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside."

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