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Dead or Only Mostly Dead?

Is health care reform dead or, to quote the Princess Bride, "only mostly dead"? It depends a bit on who's talking and when, but at the moment it seems to be only mostly dead.

To review, things looked grim--really, really grim--most of Wednesday. Senate Democrats seemed to be throwing up their hands: We've passed our bill, they were suggesting, and the House could take it or leave it. House Democrats responded pretty clearly: They were inclined to leave it. And the White House? They were waiting to see how Congress reacted--which is to say, they weren't pushing hard in one direction or another.

But as the shock of Tuesday's results wore off, the mood shifted. Barney Frank, who drove a stake into reform with his words on Tuesday night, yanked the stake out and indicated that passing the Senate bill--with promises to fix its flaws later--might just work. Kent Conrad, who would play a key role in the reconciliation process, indicated there were ways to accommodate House concerns.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel spent the day working the phones, floating the possibility of a scaled-back plan that--by all accounts--he prefers. But at a White House meeting last night, sources say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the president they weren't ready to throw in the towel. Pelosi, in particular, was said to push hard.

So what's the latest, as of Thursday afternoon? Make no mistake: Things still look gloomy.

After a morning meeting with her caucus, Pelosi emerged to say she still didn't have the 218 votes she'd need to pass the Senate bill as is. This wasn't news, but it was a signal of how tough a challenge she faces. 

It's widely understood that she faces multiple problems within her party: Some members don't want to pass a bill because they believe it will further alienate voters tired of the debate, opposed to the plan's details, and/or angry Congress hasn't done more on jobs. Some are more worried about the specifics of the Senate bill, which they detest.

It's not easy to categorize who believes what: You have, for example, liberals who hate the Senate excise tax and centrists who hate the Senate abortion language. (The latter group, headed by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, could be a big, big problem.) The smarter members, and their staffs, have legitimate worries over technical matters they'd been working through in House-Senate negotiations.

Democrats from all parts of the ideological spectrum, and both chambers, are expressing frustration and sending conflicting signals in the media. The White House remains in what appears to be a listening mode: Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president wants to "let the dust settle" and Emanuel is still taking the temperature of the Democratic caucus. The partly line remains, in other words, indiscernible.

Still, the key players--congressional leadership, labor leaders, and so on--keep leaving open the option of the Senate bill plus amendments via reconciliation, which remains the most viable path forward. Interest groups are starting to rally, too. The American Cancer Society Action Network, for example, just put out a statement urging Congress to move forward. Organizations like that speak to all Americans, not just to Democratic constituent groups.

None of this is enough to make passage of the Senate bill a reality, but it's enough to keep the option alive another day, which is a heck of a lot more than seemed possible 24 hours ago.

The White House, by the way, did one thing right today. It made a big announcement on banks. As best as I can tell,  that's not an attempt to give up on health care reform. It's an effort to address the real roots of voter anger--anxiety about jobs, exhaustion with the health care debate, anger at Wall Street--as well as an effort to, you know, do something on the banks.

Changing the subject in this way should give Congress a little breathing room and a chance to put things in perspective--which is best not only for what's left of health care reform but for the progressive cause more broadly. Just as long as it doesn't take too long.