Health care reform lives — maybe

HEALTH CARE REFORM LIVES — MAYBE…. It can get a little confusing. Over the course of a few hours, political observers can find one report suggesting health care reform proponents may have “new reason to hope,” followed soon after by another report arguing that “the grim reaper is starting to hover uncomfortably close by.” One key Democratic senator suggests reform may be a lost cause, followed soon after by another key Democratic senator suggesting reform really will come together in the end.

And that’s just since 3 p.m. yesterday.

Let’s try to clear things up. Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the Massachusetts special election, health care reform barely had a pulse, and many Democrats were simply prepared to throw in the towel. This week, very few Dems are thinking along those lines — on the contrary, the relevant players are nearly unanimous, publicly and privately, in their intention to succeed … eventually.

But by all appearances, they’re a little stuck, and there are no realistic hopes of getting this done quickly.

Democratic leaders in Congress voiced resolute optimism on Thursday that they would adopt major health care legislation this year, and they said that doing so was a crucial element of President Obama’s broader agenda to create jobs, revive the economy and reduce federal budget deficits.

But legislative leaders conceded that they did not have an immediate strategy for advancing a health care measure and described their time frame as open-ended.

“We’re going to do health care reform this year,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. “The question is, at this stage, procedurally, how do we get where we need to go.”

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairmen of the HELP and Finance committees, also sounded reasonably optimistic, with Baucus telling reporters reform is “going to be done before spring, summer.” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) added that the shift in emphasis is not a “cause for alarm.”

We also heard a fair amount from the White House yesterday, with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel telling the NYT that Democratic policymakers would move on other economic issues — including a jobs bill and Wall Street reform — before returning to health care. “The good news is, nobody is saying ‘Drop it.’ Everybody is saying, ‘Take the time to figure out how to get this done,”’ Emanuel said. “Not doing it is not part of this conversation.”

David Axelrod added that it would be “a great political mistake to walk away” from health care reform, and that the president expects lawmakers to “go back at it soon.”

So, a week after all hope appeared lost, key officials are at least saying good things, and have at least been talking about making progress, but they’re nevertheless prepared to put reform on the backburner — for an undetermined length of time. As much as it’s heartening to know the commitment to success is still there, the delays may very well allow reform to die by neglect.

As we talked about yesterday, my biggest fear isn’t that reform will come down to a life-or-death moment, where it either succeeds or fails. What’s more likely is that this once-in-a-generation opportunity will simply fade away — winter talks will be put on the backburner so policymakers can work on other things, which will lead to spring and a series of votes on those other issues. Spring will turn to summer, which is when leaders start telling reform proponents, “Well, we wanted to do something, but members don’t want to vote on controversial issues so soon before the midterm elections.”

Stay tuned.