Washington (AP) - Far from chastened by off-year election setbacks, congressional Democrats vowed no let-up in the drive to pass controversial health care Wednesday, arguing that the way to regain voter trust was to complete what they started in more prosperous political times.
Any suggestion that "we ought to run like scalded dogs from trying to fix health care for this country is wrong. I believe the judgment might be more punishing if we throw in the towel because it's difficult," said North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a political moderate and supporter of the legislation.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi hopes to have legislation on the House floor for a vote on Saturday. President Barack Obama, who has made a health care overhaul the signature initiative of his first year in office, planned to visit the Capitol on Friday, according to congressional officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings have not been announced.
There is no timetable in the Senate, where the overhaul's ultimate fate is in considerably more doubt, but supporters gave no indication that the election results had complicated the challenge facing Majority Leader Harry Reid.
While Democrats surrendered governorships in high-profile races in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, they also held a House seat in California and gained one in New York that had been in Republican hands for generations.
Depending on how quickly the newly elected lawmakers are sworn in, it was possible the most immediate impact of the elections would be to increase support for the legislation. "From our standpoint we picked up votes last night," said Pelosi, D-Calif.
Across the Capitol, there was evidence of incremental progress toward passage of the bill atop Obama's domestic agenda when two swing-vote Democrats sent signals they would vote to allow debate to begin over Republican objections.
One of them, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, described Tuesday's elections as a referendum on the economy rather than health care. He said blocking debate on the bill would mean the end of efforts to control health care costs.
"We're making progress on health reform," said Reid, D-Nev., who had set off alarms on Tuesday about the prospects for the bill's passage this year. "We're not going to be bound by any timelines," he said then, although his office quickly sought to soften the impact with a statement saying there was no reason the bill couldn't be passed by year's end.
Democrats have said for months their success as a party in 2010 would hinge on their ability to implement Obama's legislative agenda. At the same time, a president's party almost always loses House seats in midterm elections, and often Senate seats as well. A bad economy and high unemployment would make that even more likely.
Inevitably, that means some incumbents will lose their seats, and forces some of them to make difficult choices in the months leading up to the elections.
As for Tuesday's results, "For people who have been undecided it either keeps them undecided or moves them to no," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., who has yet to disclose her position on the measure. "The analysis of what happened with independent voters is one where we have to step back and say what can we do to regain their support," she said.
But there was at least anecdotal evidence to the opposite.
Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia freshman, said he had gone from being opposed to the legislation to being undecided. "I think it's a stronger bill," he said, adding pointedly that the election in his home state "reminds us just how important it is to deliver results."
Republicans, celebrating their best election night in several years, alternately taunted Democrats and sought to shake their confidence on one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation in recent memory.
"Let's throw his bill aside," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said of Reid in remarks on the Senate floor that referred to the election results. He said he sensed hesitation among Democrats, and noted Reid does not have 60 votes needed to pass the overhaul.
"You wouldn't vote for this bill if we offered it," he said to the Democrats. "You shouldn't vote for it just because your leadership and your president want to see it happen."
Corker didn't say so, but Reid needs 60 votes only because Republicans, unanimously opposed to the measure, have threatened a filibuster to block its passage. Absent their delaying tactics, a simple majority would be sufficient.
One group, the conservative "American Future Fund," readied a print ad that warned Democrats they risked their majority if they pursued the health care legislation. "Blue Dogs: Vote with Pelosi and prepare to color your district red next year," it said.
In the Senate, where Reid has struggled for months with health care, it was unclear how the elections would affect a strategy that has been sketched in private by Democratic officials.
The majority leader announced last week he would include a government insurance option in legislation he would send to the floor. That was widely seen as a gesture to liberals in his caucus and union voters back home in Nevada, where he faces re-election next year.
Within a few weeks, he will need the 60 votes for the proposal, and if he is unable to get them will presumably fall back to a weaker measure, perhaps one that holds the government option in abeyance until it is shown that consumers don't have adequate choices for affordable insurance.
According to this scenario, it would then be up to liberals, generally in safe seats, to decide whether to yield to the moderates who often struggle to survive -- or risk collapse of one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation in years.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Charles Babington, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Ben Evans, Andrew Taylor, Ken Thomas and Erica Werner contributed to this story.
"From our standpoint we picked up votes last night," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She hopes to bring health care legislation to the House floor for a vote on Saturday.