What now? Murray, Dicks, Smith unsure

WASHINGTON - Sen. Patty Murray said Wednesday that Democrats should move forward with health care reform despite the loss of a critical Senate seat in a Massachusetts special election.

But the Washington Democrat, a member of the Senate leadership, is not sure how Democrats should proceed given the election of a Republican to a Senate seat long held by Democrats and the resulting loss of her party’s critical 60-seat majority.

“I don’t think the problem has gone away for people who don’t have health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, for people whose rates have gone up or for people filling the emergency rooms,” she said. “We have to address these challenges. We have an obligation as the majority party to address these issues.”

Other members of the Washington state congressional delegation said Democrats need to step back and consider changes to the current bills.

“Clearly we are going to have to slow down and find a different direction,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma. “I don’t think we should try to jam it through. We need to work with the new Senate.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, agreed.

“I hope we reconsider everything at this juncture,” Dicks said. “I hope we can salvage something out of this, but I’ve got to say it looks bleak.”

The comments by Murray, Dicks and Smith came as Democratic congressional leaders met to discuss how to proceed. Republicans were clearly energized by Scott Brown’s victory over Democrat Martha Coakley and urged Democrats to start over on a health care bill.

Dicks and Smith clearly saw the outcome in the Massachusetts election as a reflection of the public’s growing anger not just over the Democrats’ health care bill but other parts of their agenda.

Neither congressman thought this year’s election would be a rerun of 1994, when Republicans startled the Democratic majority and gained control of Congress.

“In many ways I view this as an opportunity,” Smith said. “It’s better this should happen in January than October.”

The Massachusetts result could also have implications for Murray’s re-election campaign, though it is too soon to tell what the impact might be.

So far, five Republicans have officially entered the Washington Senate race, but national GOP leaders could be looking for a higher-profile candidate. One name mentioned has been Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.

Spokeswoman Abigail Shilling said Wednesday that Reichert “is not one to shut doors on any opportunity,” but added that, as of now, Reichert is concentrating on reaching solutions on health care and jump-starting the economy.

Even without a big-name candidate, Washington state GOP Chairman Luke Esser said Republicans were poised for a strong comeback in the state and nationally.

“Scott Brown really showed us the way,” Esser said in a conference call with reporters.

Brown’s victory, coupled with previous gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey, show that voters are frustrated with President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress, Esser said.

“Democrats run everything in D.C. Here in our state, for years Democrats have had unbridled power,” he said.

Esser called Murray a “political Goliath” but said she can be beaten.

“We’ve been saying we can’t take anything for granted,” said Carol Albert, Murray’s campaign manager. “It’s hard to say what things will look like in this race.”

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008

The Associated Press contributed to this report.