Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Thursday dared Democrats to try a one-party push to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Steele told reporters that he thinks if Democratic senators think they have the votes, they should try a tactic that would allow them to get around a bill-killing filibuster without the 60 votes usually needed. Steele said he didn't think Democrats would do it because of potential voter backlash.
"Get it to the floor. Up or down, baby," Steele said at a news conference at the state GOP headquarters. "Put it on the table. And if you don't think you've got enough votes to get to 60, you've got the nuclear option. You've got 51."
Steele was in Little Rock for a closed-door round-table discussion of health care and to headline a fundraiser for the Arkansas Republican Party.
The national Republican chairman said he thinks his party has been unfairly cast as an obstacle to President Barack Obama's health care efforts and challenged Democrats to push legislation through on their own.
"You want it done? Pass the bill," Steele said. "But they know it's poisonous and they know the American people will not tolerate it. They're scrambling now and they're beginning to turn on each other because they've got a big problem, a political one, and they can't solve it."
Derrick Plummer, a Democratic National Committee spokesman, said Obama has indicated his desire to get bipartisan support for the health care bill.
"I would just encourage (Steele) to encourage members of his party to work with the president so the 46 million Americans who are without health insurance have access to quality affordable health care that ensures choice and brings down cost," Plummer said.
The legislative tactic Steele suggested, called "reconciliation," would allow senators to get around a bill-killing filibuster without mustering the 60 votes usually needed. Democrats control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, but some moderate Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about Obama's plan.
Reconciliation lets the Senate pass some measures with a simple majority vote. Non-budget-related items can be challenged, however, and some lawmakers say reconciliation would knock many provisions from Obama's health care plan.
Steele visited the state as Democratic members of Arkansas' congressional delegation face pressure from Republicans over the White House's health care push. Obama on Thursday pitched his plan, aimed at extending health coverage to those Americans who lack it, to both conservative talk radio and liberal supporters.
Opponents of the overhaul have drowned out supporters at lawmakers' town halls around the country this month, and public backing for Obama's effort has slipped in opinion polls. Congressional Democratic leaders are preparing to go it alone on legislation, although bipartisan negotiations continue in the Senate.
Obama also faces opposition from activists and lawmakers on the left who insist any overhaul must include a government-run insurance option.
U.S. Rep. Mike Ross dismissed talk of using the lower-vote threshold in the Senate on health care, and said bipartisan support will be needed to get any proposal through Congress. Ross represents south Arkansas and has led his fellow conservative Blue Dog Democrats in delaying a vote on the health care overhaul until at least September. Ross is chairman of the Blue Dogs' health care task force.
"The challenge is it's going to be difficult to get a health care reform bill through the House that doesn't include a public option," Ross told reporters "It's going to be difficult to get a health care reform bill through the Senate that does include a public option, so this is a long way from being over."