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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scott Brown and Health Reform

I have argued several times on this page that there were significant obstacles to passing health reform, even after the House and Senate passed separate versions I noted that key differences over abortion funding, taxes of high end health plans, and the public option would be difficult to overcome. In recent weeks House and Senate negotiators along with the White House had been working to hammer out differences in hopes of having a final bill ready to the President by early February… that was so last week. The election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts has caused a political earthquake that has placed health reform’s fate on an uncertain path. The following series of headlines from Politico pretty much sums up the disarray in Washington right now:

• Reid, Pelosi work to save reform Jan 23 2010 - 12:05 AM EST
• Dem health care talks collapsing Jan 21 2010 - 8:20 PM EST
• Pelosi: 'I don't see the votes' Jan 21 2010 - 12:49 PM EST
• Dems weigh scaled-down reform Jan 20 2010 - 7:56 PM EST
• Dems in disarray on health care Jan 20 2010 - 2:02 PM EST

In the immediate aftermath of the election, some Democrats tried to spin the Massachusetts results as a being all about local issues – it was not. One month ago Scott Brown was 20 points behind Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. He was the Republican sacrificial lamb in the race. Then he declared that he would be the 41st vote against health reform, that he would be the vote that would break the Democrat’s filibuster proof majority. As he traveled the state he would sign autographs “Scott Brown No. 41”. Exits polls taken in Massachusetts showed that opposition to health reform drove his victory.

That Democratic leaders find themselves unable to move forward at this point tells us much about how tenuous their hold on party members was to begin with. Democrats enjoy a majority in the Senate that has been rarely seen in the past century – yet they are stifled. Attempts to point fingers at obstructionist Republicans notwithstanding it is surely no sign of strength when the loss of a single vote jeopardizes your top domestic agenda item. Placing blame on Republicans in the Senate also fails to acknowledge that Democrats could pass health care right now, if only the House would accept the Senate version of the bill – but as Nancy Pelosi said “I don’t see the votes.” Blue Dogs in the House are afraid of voting for any bill, worrying that they might meet their own Scott Brown come November and House Progressive appear to prefer no bill at all rather than less comprehensive Senate bill (the real problem being that the Senate bill would tax high end insurance plans, many belonging to union members and Democrats have no intention of taxing a crucial source of campaign cash). If Democrats are not willing to compromise within their own caucus, can the be that critical of Republicans who are unwilling to compromise on two bills that reflect none of their proposals? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid openly lamented the "wasted time" spent courting Liberal Republican Olympia Snowe (R-ME) - hardly a sensible thing to say shortly after losing your 60th vote.

Health reform teeters on the brink – the next week will tell the tale. Will the President and Democrats seek to double down and push for reform? Will they attempt to pass a scaled down version of the bill? Will they walk away and focus instead on jobs, jobs, jobs. Each approach is fraught with political risks – at the moment there appears to be no clear plan. That should worry people. William Galston is no less harsh when discussing the role of President Obama in all of this "If he continues to utter hopeful banalities devoid of concrete meaning, the fragile reform coalition will collapse within days, with consequences that will endure for decades."  Ezra Klein had a great assessment of the current state of affairs “Democrats have 59 votes in the Senate and almost 260 votes in the House. They brought their bill to the one-yard line before Scott Brown forced a fumble. Proving yourself unable to govern in that scenario is proving yourself unable to govern.”

Many voters may be asking that question come November 2010.