Democrats Consider Backup Plan for Health Reform as Mass. Race Remains Tight

BY Lea Winerman  January 18, 2010 at 5:03 PM EDT

Over the past week, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been negotiating a compromise health care reform bill they hope can pass both chambers of Congress.

But if Republican Scott Brown beats Democrat Martha Coakley in Tuesday’s special election to replace Sen. Paul Kirk — the Democrat appointed to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat — then all those negotiations could be moot. The Democrats would lose their crucial 60th vote in the Senate, necessary to their filibuster-proof majority.

The White House is remaining mum on the possibility.

“We’re focused on two things: ironing out the differences in the bills, which you know the president has spent a lot of time working on over the past few days; and we think Martha Coakley is going to win this race,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Sunday.

But as the race remains tight to the very end, Democrats have been discussing their “plan B” — looking for a way to pass the legislation with only 59 Democratic votes in the Senate.

One possibility might be to persuade House Democrats to pass the Senate reform bill, exactly as the Senate approved it last month. That would render another Senate vote unnecessary, and the legislation could go directly to President Obama’s desk.

Some analysts see this plan as one of the strongest possibilities. Ron Pollack, of the group Families USA, which supports health care reform, told the Boston Globe that it is “probably the cleanest, most effective and most practical way to pass the legislation, and do so quickly.”

But others say House Democrats, many of whom are already angry that the final compromise bill was shaping up to look more like the Senate option, may balk.

“Progressives and conservatives in the caucus won’t go for it,” one aide told Politico.

Democrats could also aim to pass portions a compromise bill through a budget process called reconciliation, for which only 51 Senate votes are necessary.

The problem, however, is that reconciliation can only be used for issues affecting the federal budget, which would leave out many aspects of health reform legislation, such as new regulations on the insurance industry.

Finally, Democrats could try to push a compromise bill through both the House and Senate between the Massachusetts election and the day the new senator is certified as the winner. But the time window for such a move would be tight, and the move might be politically unpalatable.

Democrats must first agree on a final compromise bill, then get a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, which could take several days or even longer. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has promised to make the full bill public for 72 hours before any vote.

Meanwhile, it could take up to two weeks to certify the new senator from the Bay State. Town clerks have to wait 10 days after the election to make sure that they have all ballots from military members serving overseas, then they have another five days to send the results to the Massachusetts secretary of state, according to the Boston Globe.

Ultimately, rushing a bill through Congress could prove politically damaging to Democrats, giving Republicans the opportunity to accuse them of ignoring the will of voters.
It “would be Chicago politics at its worst,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., told the Globe.

In another twist, some conservative commentators have suggested that Sen. Paul Kirk should lose his Senate vote immediately after Tuesday’s election, even before the new senator is certified. Republican leaders haven’t yet taken up that claim, though, and Democrats are already pushing back. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Politico that the argument is wrong.

Meanwhile, Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle that health care reform will happen, no matter the results of Tuesday’s race.

“Let’s remove all doubt, we will have health care — one way or another,” Pelosi said. “Back to the drawing board means a great big zero for the American people.”