Published January 20, 2010
Democrats are being forced to re-evaluate their plans for health care reform after Republican Scott Brown's victory for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts made clear that independent and even many Democratic voters are concerned about health insurance reforms being debated in Washington.
Brown's win Tuesday is a colossal hit to Democrats, since it will break the party's 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at a time when health care reform is in its final stages. Brown has vowed to vote against the bill if he gets the chance.
Though Democrats have discussed ways to fast-track the legislation so as to send it to President Obama's desk before Brown gets sworn in, cracks in the Democrats' resolve started to show Tuesday night.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said it would "only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Brown is seated."
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., a fierce advocate for health care reform, also said it might be time to take a time-out on health care reform and focus on jobs.
"It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to take a step back and say we're going to pivot, do a jobs thing, and try to include some health care things as a part of that," he said. "If we were struggling and making the bill worse with a 60-vote Senate majority, I don't see how we make it better with 59."
But the Democrats do have options on health care.
Before polls closed, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., outlined a combination of tactics to get what his party wants out of health care reform.
First, he said the House could simply approve the Senate bill, sending it straight to Obama's desk.
Then, Durbin said, the Senate could make changes to the bill by using a process known as "reconciliation," a tactic that would allow Democrats to adjust parts of health care reform with just a 51-vote majority.
"We could go to something called 'reconciliation', which is in the weeds procedurally, but would allow us to modify that health care bill by a different process that doesn't require 60 votes, only a majority," Durbin said. "So that is one possibility there."
Though House Democrats have major misgivings about the Senate version, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Tuesday suggested they'd be willing to consider approving the Senate bill intact, if the alternative is no bill at all. A majority of Democrats in that chamber are opposed to many provisions in the Senate-passed bill, including the controversial tax on high-cost insurance plans which the unions are vehemently against.
After Brown's victory, Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., suggested the House may want to consider taking up the Senate bill.
"I haven't completely analyzed it myself. But if that's the only option in town, then maybe that's what we ought to do," Hill said.
Democrats probably have until early February until the Massachusetts election is certified.
Brown repeatedly charged that Democrats were planning to delay his certification, Reid said in his statement that Brown would be seated "as soon as the proper paperwork has been received."
Reid said that while Brown's victory "changes the political math," he hopes Brown will join Democrats in "strengthening our economy, creating good-paying jobs and ensuring all Americans can access affordable health care."
"Regardless of the size of their minority caucus, Senate Republicans have always had an obligation to join us in governing our nation through these difficult times. Today's election doesn't change that. In fact it is now more important than before for Republicans to work with us rather than against us if we are to find common ground that improves Americans' lives," Reid said.
Health care reform supporters outside of Capitol Hill said the state race should not deter Democrats from finishing the job on health care reform.
"Tuesday's vote was not a referendum on health care reform. It was a referendum on a particular candidate in a climate in which people, hard pressed by the economy, are impatient for change. When it comes to the need to make good health care affordable, nothing is different today than it was yesterday. Congress must keep going and finish reform right," said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now.
"The reason Ted Kennedy's seat is no longer controlled by a Democrat is clear: Washington's inability to deliver the change voters demanded in November 2008. Make no mistake, political paralysis resulted in electoral failure," Stern said.
Reconciliation, though, is not easy under any circumstances. Any measure that is passed under the process requires 51 votes for passage, but that measure's authors must pass strict legislative tests to show the bill deals only with taxes and spending to bring the legislation in line with the budget -- a move that its creators made back in 1974 to keep extraneous provisions from being passed under this expedited process.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the primary point person in the Senate for reconciliation matters as the top Republican on the Budget Committee, has called this "Chicago-style politics" and has vowed to raise scores of objections, called "points of order." There are about 13 different ways Republicans can challenge Democrats, and nearly all of these will require votes.
Durbin, in Chicago, said Democrats "haven't given up on finding other options. I hope some of the Republican senators who have at least been in conversations with us in the past will join us in passing health care reform."
But that's not too likely. Reid could possibly have pushed away the only Republican in that chamber, moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine, open to working with the Democrats on health care. She told The New York Times that she had "no intention of ever working anything out," calling it "a waste of time dealing with her."
Fox News' Trish Turner and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.