Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration tried Sunday to steady itself and its top domestic priority after last week's stunning Massachusetts Senate upset, as a top White House official vowed to move ahead with comprehensive healthcare legislation because "the underlying elements of it are popular and important."
"The president will not walk away from the American people, will not hand them over to the tender mercies of health insurance companies who take advantage" of them, White House senior advisor David Axelrod said on ABC's "This Week."
His comments came as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called on the White House to scrap the legislation and "start over."
Republicans and Democrats continued to spar over the message and effect of Republican Scott Brown's win last week in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts. The loss has shaken Democrats, who fear voter anger in November over healthcare and the still-struggling economy.
Part of the immediate fallout has been increasing opposition to the renomination of Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve. But White House officials, along with Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, said Sunday that they thought Bernanke would be confirmed. His term expires Jan. 31.
Brown promised to give Senate Republicans the one additional vote they needed to filibuster the Democrats' healthcare bill. But Axelrod said the message from voters was more complex than outright rejection of the plan.
He noted that Massachusetts had enacted its own major healthcare overhaul law in 2006, and 68% of voters in last week's special election said they supported it, according to a poll by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's School of Public Health. Brown voted for that overhaul in the state Legislature.
"I think people want action on healthcare," Axelrod said, admitting some missteps in the yearlong effort to move legislation through Congress. "The foolish thing to do would be for anybody else who supported this to walk away from it because what's happened is, this thing's been defined by . . . insurance industry propaganda, the propaganda of the opponents, and an admittedly messy process leading up to it."
His comments echoed strategy laid out by Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, in an opinion article Sunday as the administration took steps to save major healthcare legislation.
The day after the Massachusetts election, Obama had appeared to call for abandoning bold legislation in favor of a piecemeal approach. But consumer groups, doctors and patient advocates urged Democrats last week not to give up on healthcare legislation.
And the White House on Sunday signaled it was prepared to fight.
Plouffe, who is returning as an advisor to the White House political team on strategy for November's congressional midterm election, wrote in the Washington Post that Democrats must "pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay."
"I know that the short-term politics are bad. It's a good plan that's become a demonized caricature," Plouffe wrote. "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."
But with Brown's victory, Democrats appear to have little flexibility to push through their legislation. Either the House passes the Senate bill intact, or at least one Senate Republican would have to cross party lines to support a compromise between the versions that passed each chamber.
And Republicans said Sunday that they would not help save the legislation.
"This particular bill deserves to be stopped," McConnell said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "What we need to do is start over and get it right."
McConnell would not say what elements of the existing legislation Senate Republicans would be willing to support. "We would have to sit down and discuss that," he said.
Republicans want to start over on a bipartisan basis with legislation that would reduce malpractice lawsuits and allow individuals to deduct the cost of their coverage from their taxes the way corporations can, McConnell said. But the existing legislation, with its huge price tag, is a nonstarter, he said.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading opponent of the healthcare plan who last year declared that its defeat would be Obama's Waterloo, said, "Massachusetts was a rejection of the president's massive policies of spending and debt."
"The Republicans want to work with the Democrats on improving healthcare, focusing on jobs," DeMint said on "This Week." "But for this first year, the president really believed that he could steamroll the Republicans, not even have us in the same room, and in the process, he was steamrolling the American people, not listening to what they were saying."