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Nope, Still Not Dead

"So is that it? Is it over?" I've gotten about a half-dozen e-mails with versions of that message this morning.

The answer is "No." That's not it. This isn't over.

The primary reason for all the messages seems to be stories in the New York Times and Politico, describing the difficulties Democrats are having coming to agreement on health care reform. The Times story, which is the more alarming, begins:

With no clear path forward on major health care legislation, Democratic leaders in Congress effectively slammed the brakes on President Obama’s top domestic priority on Tuesday, saying that they no longer felt pressure to move quickly on a health bill after eight months of setting deadlines and missing them.

The original headline--the one that ran on the Times website last night--used the same language as the article. It said "Democrats Slam the Brakes" on health care reform, or something like that. The current headline is a bit softer: "No Rush" on health care, it says.

The basis for the story, and the gloom, was the revelation that Senate Democrats didn't even discuss health care at Tuesday's Democratic caucus meeting. Afterwards, Reid talked to the press about it:

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, deflected questions about health care. “We’re not on health care now,” he said. “We’ve talked a lot about it in the past.” He added, “There is no rush,” and noted that Congress still had most of this year to work on the health bills passed in 2009 by the Senate and the House.

The Times' reporters may know more than I do. It certainly wouldn't be the first time! And the difficulties are definitely real. But, as my tan, rested, and ready colleague Jonathan Chait notes, the situation actually seems to be less dire than it was a few days ago.

What you're seeing, I think, is a very deliberate attempt to move health care reform out of the spotlight, both because voters are sick of hearing about it and because it's easier to make progress when every word isn't being parsed for hidden meaning. Sources on both sides of Capitol Hill, as well as in the administration, insist negotiations will continue, just as they have for the last week. Nobody is giving up.

Mind you, I'm not sure this is the best way forward. It may take a public push to get the deal done--from Reid as well as from the president. And you can rest assured every utterance on health care will be scrutinized, no matter how hard negotiators try to keep a low profile. (That's why quick House passage of the Senate bill would be the best way forward.)

I also don't want to minimize the obstacles in the way of passing reform. House progressives seem to be coming around, but many House centrists remain wary. Among other things, nobody knows how many of them will join Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak in opposing the Senate bill over its abortion language. Meanwhile, as the Politico story notes, the centrists in the Senate are complaining about making amendments to the Senate bill in the budget reconciliation process.

Still, most of the centrist senators complaining about reconciliation aren't ruling it out altogether: If you read their quotes carefully, you'll see most of them express concern but leave room to embrace reconciliation under certain conditions--if the process is "transparent," if the changes themselves are relatively narrow, and so on. It's exactly the kind of posturing you'd expect in a negotiation.

The end is not here. It may not even be that near.

By the way, for more on the state of play, I highly recommend Karen Tumulty's latest dispatch.