Anyone who still hopes that major health-care legislation can be saved this year by an angry uprising from the grass roots will draw little solace from the experience of Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
Bingaman, a Democrat, worked hard for a health-care bill this year and was sorry to see it fade; he thought his state, with one of the highest rates of uninsured people in the nation, would benefit from it.But in this last, critical recess before Congress returns for the final business of the legislative year, Bingaman says that while some constituents were frustrated, many were actually relieved by the collapse of the health-care effort.
"There's been enough confusion sown around the issue that I don't see a major push for us to just get something done in order to get something before the break," he said in an interview last week. With a sad smile, Bingaman added, "There's nobody outside picketing because health-care reform has floundered."
In New Mexico, and political consultants say in many other parts of the country as well, the murky, complicated, confusing struggle over health care that dominated the news over the summer may be fading into the background as the fall campaign gets under way.
At a debate last week with his Republican opponent, Colin McMillan, Bingaman was asked about health care only after questions on the deficit, cuts in military spending, grazing fees, crime and drugs.
Interviews with lawmakers in 10 other states last week suggested that Bingaman's experience is not unusual. Several members described the reaction of their constituents to the collapse of major health-care legislation as mixed and muted.
"For whatever reason, I'm not getting as much positive or negative feedback on health care," said Senator Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, a major player in the health-care effort. "They've gone from confused to opposed to ambivalent."
In California, Rep. Jane Har-man, a Democrat, said, "This is not a top concern for my constituents. They care about jobs and crime and illegal immigration."
In Arkansas, Rep. Blanche Lambert, another Democrat, said, "The biggest consensus is, `Yes, we need to do something, but we don't want to rush into something; we want to take our time and make certain what we do is right.' "
And in New York, Rep. Susan Molinari, a Republican from Staten Island, argued that the pressures of the calendar and the complexity of the issue have created an exceedingly cautious public. "What frightens people most, and what puts off Congress - a lot of members - was the time line," she said. "You are talking Plan A one day that becomes Plan B, and yet people don't know what plan B is yet, and they read that their representative is voting for it."
These soundings from the districts, if widely held, could have important implications for efforts to get even a modest health-care bill passed in these final weeks of the legislative session. Leaders in the Senate are still hopeful that they can hammer out a bipartisan approach that could cover millions of Americans.
But given the time constraints, it would not be easy. And advocates of health-care restructuring had long counted on the prospect of a public backlash to push Democrats - and some moderate Republicans - to pass at least "a-first-step" health-care bill this year.
That goal was emphasized particularly by Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., who helped create the movement for health-care restructuring.
"People understand that there's been a huge onslaught of special interests on this," he said. "People have been confused by the television and the debate and they're ready to see a good first step."
But other lawmakers said they did not sense a great push from the public to act before Congress adjourns in October. Even a member of the Democratic leadership, Rep. Vic Fazio of California, said, "There's no question that at the moment, not only the expectation that we'll do something big is reduced - but also the demand that we do something quickly."
There are, to be sure, signs of a simmering frustration among some voters. Julia Roberts, a lawyer in New Mexico who turned up at a Bingaman rally, praised her senator but said of the health-care struggle in general, "No one seemed to rise above partisanship."