Scale back health reform, move on to jobs, Titus and Berkley urge Congress

WASHINGTON — As Democrats ponder a new strategy for their suddenly stymied health care bill, two key Nevadans said Wednesday that they are ready to throw up their hands and shelve the ambitious overhaul envisioned by President Barack Obama.

Faced with a seemingly frustrated and angry electorate, Congress should scale back health care reform, pass a simplified, consumer-friendly bill — and move on to legislation that will create jobs and help the economy, say Reps. Dina Titus and Shelley Berkley.

The lawmakers in separate interviews had the same message: Prospects for sweeping health reform are teetering, and Democrats should salvage what they can.

Even a smaller bill would be an achievement, considering Congress has been unable to pass significant health legislation for decades, Titus said.

“I hope it doesn’t die,” she said of health care reform. “If we have to take something smaller, I am going to declare victory. It won’t be universal coverage, unfortunately, but it will be a step in the right direction. Rome was not built in a day.”

Titus and Berkley are among House Democrats who hold a key to what, if anything, Congress will be able to achieve on health reform. Both voted for a version that passed the House by a 220-215 vote on Nov. 8. But both also have expressed opposition to a Senate-passed version that includes new taxes on middle-class families, small business owners and health plans held by union members.

Both said Wednesday that they would vote against the Senate bill if the leadership tried to force it through the House as a way to avoid a new filibuster threat, finish health reform quickly and get it to Obama to sign into law. They said a number of other House Democrats would do the same.

“The Senate version would be unacceptable to me and a large number of House members,” Berkley said. “People have said that loud and clear, including myself.”

White House officials and congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have been negotiating a final version of the bill. Despite some publicized compromises on tax issues, Berkley said, negotiators still are far apart.

“This bill is in serious jeopardy and it should be, seeing that only 36 percent (of Americans) are in favor of it,” she said. “But certain parts of it are very good. If we could pass those provisions, I would declare victory.”

The Democrats’ defeat Tuesday in the election to fill the Senate seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is forcing party leaders to plot a new path for health care reform.

The election of state Sen. Scott Brown, who campaigned against the federal health bill, gives Republicans a 41st vote in the Senate, enough to block what critics contend is an overly complex, overly expensive reform they call Obamacare.

Reid told reporters Wednesday that Democrats “are not going to rush to anything. We are going to wait until the new senator arrives until we do anything more on health care.”

In the wake of the Massachusetts results, Titus said, “my feeling is that this is a whole different dynamic.” She added: “There are not 60 votes over there (in the Senate). I think we have to be realistic and practical and look for what we can pass in a bipartisan way.”

According to Titus and Berkley, such a bill would focus on insurance reforms, including lifting the lifetime cap on benefits, prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing health problems, limiting the insurance industry’s exemptions under antitrust laws, permitting insurance to be sold over state lines and allowing parents to continue carrying their adult children on their plans until they reach age 27.

Also, Titus said, “If you could do some expansion of Medicare or Medicaid, that would be great. I’m not saying you have to go for the minimum, but I’m saying don’t keep dragging this out and pushing something the public obviously is not behind.”

What probably would not be included is Obama’s ambitious goal to provide health coverage to 30 million or more uninsured people. Gone would be the mandates that individuals must carry health insurance, and that companies provide some level of coverage for their workers. Also likely to be scrapped would be the federal “exchanges” where people and small businesses could buy coverage, with federal subsidies if necessary.

The Nevada lawmakers said they are frustrated that health reform continues to dominate the agenda into the new session of Congress while the Las Vegas economy continues to falter with high unemployment and record foreclosures.

“Let’s get some smaller piece (of legislation), pass that and move on to jobs,” Titus said. “That’s where I am. This continuing to negotiate, betting against ourselves and dragging this out ... hey, let’s listen to what we are hearing out there.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.