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Many health initiatives can wait, Lieberman says

Sen. Joe Lieberman
Sen. Joe Lieberman
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — An independent senator counted on by Democrats in the health-care debate showed signs of wavering Sunday when he urged President Barack Obama to postpone many of his initiatives because of the economic downturn.

"I'm afraid we've got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy's out of recession," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. "There's no reason we have to do it all now, but we do have to get started. And I think the place to start is cost health delivery reform and insurance market reforms."

The Senate requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and advance a measure to an up-or-down vote. Senators from both parties said that Democrats might use a voting tactic to overcome GOP opposition, abandoning the White House's goal of bipartisan support for its chief domestic priority.

Democrats control 60 votes, including those of two independents, but illness has sidelined Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. The party's leaders also cannot be assured that their moderate members will support every health care proposal.

"I think it's a real mistake to try to jam through the total health insurance reform, health care reform plan that the public is either opposed to or of very, very passionate mixed minds about," Lieberman said.

Talk about resorting to this maneuver comes as Republicans dig in against the idea of a government-run insurance program as an option for consumers and a requirement that employers provide health insurance to their workers.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would like to start over "with a genuine bipartisan approach."

"The American people will be very troubled by a single political party's 'my way or the highway' attitude to overhauling their health care, especially when it means government-run health care, new taxes on small businesses, and Medicare cuts for seniors," McConnell, R-Ky., said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats would consider the voting tactic, known as reconciliation, if necessary to pass a bill by year's end if Republicans won't work toward a bipartisan solution.

To Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, "that would be an abuse of the process."

Even Sen. Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, acknowledged that "it's an option, but it's not a very good one." He has warned that nonbudget items in health care legislation would be challenged under the rules allowing reconciliation.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., also suggested that a fresh start was needed.

"Bringing up of the health care situation in the midst of recession, the unemployment problems ... was a mistake," Lugar said. "For the moment, let's clear the deck and try it again next year or in subsequent times."

Kennedy, one of the major proponents of health care reform, has missed most of the recent debate because of cancer. Both Hatch and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kennedy's absence has taken a toll on the process.

"He had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations," McCain said.

Lieberman and Lugar appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" while Hatch and Schumer appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Conrad spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation" and McCain on ABC's "This Week."