Policy-ish

Democrats Lay Backup Plans For Overhaul, In Case Bay State Votes GOP

Until last week Democrats were mostly in denial that the Massachusetts Senate seat held for more than half a century by someone named Kennedy could be taken over by a Republican who has vowed to cast the 41st vote needed to block a health overhaul bill.

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown waves to supporters after voting in special election to replace i i

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown waves to supporters after voting in the special election to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy. Robert F. Bukaty/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown waves to supporters after voting in special election to replace

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown waves to supporters after voting in the special election to replace Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

But over the last few days they've been scrambling to develop a Plan B, should they lose their 60th vote in the Senate — the one that let them pass the health bill Christmas Eve — to the Republican coming-on-like-gangbusters-out-of-nowhere candidate Scott Brown.

At his weekly briefing with reporters today, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland insisted that Plan A — to merge the House and Senate bills — is still in effect. "Our objective is to get agreement; not to take the Senate bill or the House bill, but to come to an agreement, which is the normal legislative process," he said.

Under Massachusetts law, it will take at least 10 more days for absentee ballots to be counted in any case, and probably another five days after that before the election is certified; giving negotiators another two weeks to complete action while they still have Sen. Paul Kirk in the Bay State catbird seat.

After that things get a bit more convoluted. Option B is for the House to take up and pass the Senate bill and send it directly to the President. That's procedurally kosher, but could be politically difficult.

Only under duress today did Hoyer manage to say that "I think the Senate bill is clearly better than nothing." It lacks a public option House liberals voted for; its subsidies for lower middle-income individuals are substantially smaller; and it includes a highly unpopular tax on high-cost health plans. Don't even start on abortion.

Option C is to back to square one, sort of, with the technique known as "budget reconciliation." That prevents a filibuster in the Senate and requires only 51, rather than 60 votes. But it also requires all the provisions of the bill to be closely related to the budget, which means large chunks of the measure might have to be jettisoned.

And, points out Bill Hoagland, a longtime Senate Budget Committee aide who now lobbies for insurance giant CIGNA, reconciliation would chew up more valuable time. "You have to go back through the committees. You have to bring it back out on the floor."

Ron Pollack of the liberal advocacy group Families USA has proposed an Option D — a combination of the Senate-passed bill and budget reconciliation. He says the House could pass the Senate bill and incorporate most of the changes that have already been negotiated via a reconciliation bill. He says most of the negotiated changes are fiscal — "what should happen to the excise tax; what other forms of revenue should be considered as part of the health reform package; what to do about things like drug rebates and payments to hospitals and the private sector Medicare Advantage plans," he said. So all are perfectly acceptable as part of a reconciliation bill.

Would it work? So far members of Congress aren't saying. And so far they're still keeping their fingers crossed that Democrat Martha Coakley will pull out the election so they don't have to worry about it. But she might have to brush up on a little baseball trivia if she wants to represent the Red Sox Nation.

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