Massachusetts Special Election Steals Spotlight in Health Care Reform
An increasingly tight race between the Democratic and Republican candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts has forced Democrats to acknowledge that passage of health reform legislation could be dependent on the outcome of Tuesday's special election, the Wall Street Journal reports.
According to the Journal, public and internal polling data in recent days have shown that state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) -- who was widely expected to win the seat previously occupied by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) -- has lost her lead to Republican state Sen. Scott Brown (R) (Adamy/Bendavid, Wall Street Journal, 1/19).
Senate Democrats currently hold a filibuster-proof majority with 60 members, but a victory by Brown would give Senate Republicans enough votes to filibuster legislation, the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, Democrats would then be faced with more serious challenges on how to proceed with health reform legislation (Balz/Cilliza, Washington Post, 1/19).
Obama Jumps In
Fearing a Democratic loss and possible roadblocks to his agenda, President Obama campaigned with Coakley in Boston on Sunday.
According to the Journal, during his speech, Obama did not specifically mention the impact of a Democratic loss on the success of health reform, but he suggested that the success of various types of legislation would hinge on one vote in the Senate (Hitt, Wall Street Journal, 1/18).
Democrats also arranged for a series of key party leaders and officials -- including former President Clinton -- to campaign with Coakley for the seat, the Post reports (Vick/Cilliza, Washington Post, 1/16).
When the Winner Could Be Seated
According to The Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intends to seat the winner of the election as soon as the results have been officially certified -- based on the Senate's rules for special elections -- and after Vice President Biden has administered the oath of office.
The winner could be seated as soon as Jan. 29, after state and local officials count overseas and military ballots and finalize and certify the results, The Hill reports (The Hill, 1/15).
Pelosi Pushes Ahead
Some Democratic leaders have sought to play down their concern over the potential for a Brown victory and its effect on reform legislation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday said, "There is no 'back to the drawing board,'" adding that health care reform would be accomplished "one way or the other" (Washington Post, 1/19).
Still, Pelosi on Monday acknowledged, "Certainly the dynamic [of the outcome on health reform] will change depending on what happens in Massachusetts."
Possible Backup Plans
White House officials and congressional Democrats working to merge the House and Senate health reform bills (HR 3962, HR 3590) have discussed several possible strategies to head off a Republican-led filibuster against the final health reform bill in the event that Coakley loses the special election, the New York Times reports. The possible scenarios under consideration include:
- Bypassing the Senate: According to the Times, this strategy would require the House to pass the Senate bill as is and send it directly to Obama for his signature. However, it is unclear if House Democrats -- many of whom are publicly opposed to specific proposals in the Senate bill, particularly language relating to insurance coverage for abortion services -- would vote for the bill.
- Rush approval: Another strategy would allow Democrats to use the time needed to certify the special election results to expedite a revised bill through the Senate before Brown is seated, the Times reports (Herszenhorn/Pear, New York Times, 1/19). Senior Senate aides acknowledged that it would be difficult to justify an attempt to delay seating Brown -- by waiting until Massachusetts officials have verified his victory -- long enough to complete and approve the reform bill (Montgomery, Washington Post, 1/16).
- Budget reconciliation: Under this strategy, the special procedural rule would be invoked by which House lawmakers would approve the Senate bill with the promise that it would be revised at a later time with a reconciliation bill. This maneuver would allow the Senate to pass the bill with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than 60 votes. However, an official familiar with the negotiations said that invoking reconciliation is a "distant" option on the list of strategies, The Hill reports (Bolton, The Hill, 1/18).
- Moderate Republican crossover: Although Democrats could convince a moderate Republican to cross party lines, "a Republican victory in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts would leave the GOP no reason to negotiate with Democrats," according to the Journal (Wall Street Journal, 1/19).
Pace Could Increase Even if Coakley Wins
Meanwhile, some Democrats have suggested that even if Coakley wins the seat, they would need to push House Democrats to work quickly on delivering the compromise legislation to Obama, the Times reports.
The Democrats noted that Democratic lawmakers anticipating a tough re-election cycle could begin to reconsider their support.
However, Pelosi and other House Democrats insist a final decision would not be made until all caucus members have weighed in on the matter (New York Times, 1/19).
Brown Victory Could Launch Legal Battle
A debate over whether interim Massachusetts Sen. Paul Kirk's (D) vote toward health reform would count if Brown wins Tuesday's special election could be a "sign of the fierce legal and political battles likely to ensue," Politico reports.
Conservative commentator Fred Barnes has argued that if Brown wins, Kirk -- who was named as the temporary replacement to the U.S. Senate seat at stake in the election -- would essentially no longer be a senator from Massachusetts and that his vote on a health reform bill would not be valid.
However, elected officials in the Republican Party have not adopted Barnes' argument, and two election law experts rejected the assertion that Kirk's appointment would be eliminated in the event of a Brown victory, according to Politico (Frates/Raju, Politico, 1/17).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.