White House Reduces Expectation of Passing Health Care Reform

Shell-shocked by the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate special election, the White House is offering mixed messages on whether Congress will pass health care this year.

"I think it's always hard to tell how these things sort out in the first hours," President Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod told Fox News on Wednesday when asked if health care was now dead. "I think people are trying to figure this out. We'll know more soon. I don't believe we came all this way and are going to walk away from it. I think it would be a terrible mistake."

But asked again whether he was sure Congress would pass health care, Axelrod hesitated.

"I believe there is going to be a will to move forward," Axelrod said in an interview with Fox News. "The benefits of doing it are much greater than the peril of not moving forward at this point."

At his daily briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama's team and Democrats in Congress were "working through the best way forward" and that includes exploring "a lot of different paths."

He also offered a more positive outlook for health care.

"We can and should get health care reform done this year," he said.

Gibbs said the White House "bears some responsibility," for the frustration that fueled Brown's stunning victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. Brown is the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts since 1966. Brooke was re-elected in 1972.

Brown's election gives Senate Republicans their 41st no vote against any bill requiring a 60-vote majority. He campaigned that he would use it to stop health care, a pledge he effectively kept even before entering Congress.

As a result of the victory, talks have broken down and House Democrats do not have a prospective roadmap on how to get out of the legislative and political cul-de-sac that is health care. 

Beginning Thursday, Democratic leaders are meeting with every constituency in the caucus -- from Blue Dogs to the Hispanic and black caucuses and the progressives -- to take the temperature and perhaps develop a plan over the next three weeks.

Democrats may elect to pass portions of health care in a piecemeal fashion or even punt the entire issue if the appetite isn't there. Senior aides gave conflicting accounts Wednesday of the way forward. Some said Democrats are looking at developing a "procedural" strategy first that would develop an operational plan to move changes through both chambers of Congress, and then insert the policy. 

But a senior House Democrat said the plan would probably be the opposite -- figuring out what policy elements were workable and then figuring out the procedure.

Speaking to ABC on Wednesday, President Obama said he wants to alert the American people of the substance of the package in order to reduce the "fear mongering" around the bill. 

"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families," the president said.

After Brown's victory Tuesday night, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., called on the Senate to stop all health care legislation until Brown is seated. President Obama told ABC he agreed.  

"The Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated. People in Massachusetts spoke. He's got to be part of that process," he said.

Fox News' Major Garrett and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.