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Despite Health Care Summit, Democrats Insist Economy Is Main Focus

With health care reform dominating political news this week, Democrats say creating jobs is still their top job.

"Jobs are our principal focus," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday. His remarks came a day after the Senate cleared a Republican filibuster to launch debate on a $15 billion package designed to return people to work. 

The Senate couldn't have summoned the legislation to the floor were it not for the critical votes of newly-minted Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and four other Republicans who sided with Democrats to quash a Republican filibuster.

"I was interested to see that the new senator that theoretically was going to put a monkey wrench (into our plans) did the opposite," Hoyer said. "He facilitated moving ahead."

It takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to spoil a filibuster. But the election of Brown meant that Republicans had 41 senators to potentially derail key Democratic legislation.

But despite Hoyer's assertion that Democrats want to focus on the economy, many Democratic lawmakers are concerned that their braintrust is distracted by health care. 

Health care reform remains the marquee issue in Washington. On Wednesday, the House debates legislation to strip insurance companies of their antitrust exemption. And congressional Democrats and Republicans plan to huddle at the White House in a much-anticipated health care summit on Thursday. That's left some Democrats grousing that the leadership is too focused on passing a controversial health care reform bill while American jobs swing in the balance.

"They're way off track," conceded one angry House Democrat, who wished not to be identified.

Still, some fiscally-conscious Democrats aren't sure about dipping into the federal treasury to bolster the economy.

In December, House Democrats struggled to approve their version of the jobs package. Many moderate and so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats, who are fiscally conservative, refused to vote for government largesse to jump-start the sagging economy. In the end, Democrats persuaded enough of their members to pass the bill, 217-212. Switching just three votes would have killed the jobs bill.

"This one surprised me a little bit," said the Democrats top vote counter, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.,at the time.

On Tuesday, Hoyer conceded that some lawmakers were skittish about a jobs package late last year.

"There were some members who were somewhat concerned as to whether or not we ought to pass a jobs bill in December or whether we ought to wait and work with the Senate on coming up with a jobs package," Hoyer said about the close December vote. "These bills are tough."

Hoyer added that lawmakers now seem to have a "much greater focus on jobs, economic growth and expansion."

Republicans are now treading lightly on the jobs issue. On one hand, they don't want to oppose an effort to get Americans back to work. That was evident in the votes of Brown and four GOP colleagues who bucked the Republican leadership to advance the Senate jobs measure to the Senate floor. Still, many Republicans remain skeptical about the Democrats' job effort.

"They're sautéing the onions and garlic as they are making the spaghetti sauce and you can't ask me what it's going to taste like at this point," scoffed House Minority Leader John Boehner,R-Ohio, about the Senate cooks preparing the jobs legislation.

The Senate hopes to finish the jobs package later this week.