Policy-ish

Prospects For Health Overhaul Dim After Massachusetts Vote

The Kennedy seat in the Senate is gone. With its loss, Democrats' hopes for passing an overhaul of the nation's health system have faded, too.

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, celebrates in Boston. i i

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown celebrates his election victory in Boston. Elise Amendola/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Elise Amendola/AP
Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, celebrates in Boston.

Massachusetts State Sen. Scott Brown celebrates his election victory in Boston.

Elise Amendola/AP

The basic problem now is that Democrats will soon have just 59 votes in the Senate, one shy of the filibuster-proof majority they've used thus far to push their health plan ahead without a single vote of support from Republicans.

In theory, the Democrats have options. The House could simply vote to accept the version of overhaul passed by the Senate, an unlikely possibility given its lack of a public option.

Another tack would let the House approve the Senate bill then work out the differences in a budget reconciliation vote that can't be filibustered in the Senate. Or Democrats could hustle to pass a reconciled bill in the House and Senate before Republican State Sen. Scott Brown is seated as U.S. Sen. Brown in a few weeks at most. That seems all but impossible.

But all the options must now be seen through the lens of the Massachusetts defeat. As analyst Richard Evans of research shop Sector & Sovereign put it, "the political relevance of the Massachusetts Senate election is logarithmically more important" than the procedural options still open to Democrats.

Why would moderate Democrats in the House, already worried about their prospects in mid-term elections, vote for health overhaul now?

And will the Democrats in the Senate be able to hold together their caucus, which leaned shakily on the vote of independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut already? Yesterday, Lieberman said a Brown victory would show voters are "really skeptical about this health care bill." That raw fact isn't likely to help Democrats persuade Maine Republican Senators Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins to suddenly jump aboard overhaul.

The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein was less pessimistic, writing that the Massachusetts vote wasn't exactly a referendum on health overhaul—because the state already has near-universal coverage. What's more, he argues, Senate Democrats could choose to plow ahead and let Republicans filibuster themselves out, eventually leading to an amended bill that could pass by simple majority.

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