Massachusetts Result Puts Health Care at Risk

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The aftershocks from the political earthquake in Massachusetts continued to reverberate in Washington on Wednesday. The stunning Republican victory in the U.S. Senate race has thrown Democrats off-guard and forced President Obama to recalibrate his agenda on health care.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.


And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

We begin this hour with the new reality in national politics. Last night's upset in the Massachusetts Senate race has Republicans rejoicing and Democrats scrambling.

BLOCK: Republican Scott Brown's victory could spell trouble for Democrats in November's midterm elections, as we'll hear in a few minutes. And it has forced the president to recalibrate his agenda on health care.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has that story.

MARA LIASSON: Democrats have a lot of decisions to make about how and whether they push forward with health care legislation. But first, says Scott Brown's pollster Neil Newhouse, they have to absorb the psychological impact of the Massachusetts election. It's a blow that's much more than a wakeup call for Democrats.

Mr. NEIL NEWHOUSE (Pollster): All these Senators who looked at that result yesterday and said, oh my gosh, if it can happen in Massachusetts, which is a tremendously Democratic state, what about me? What about my state? What's gonna happen to me? I mean, I think you're looking at even more retirements, fundraising on the Republican side going through the roof. I mean, this is adding fuel to the fire and it's just going to generate more heat, more enthusiasm for Republicans.

BLOCK: In Boston today, Scott Brown said he rode the same angry anti-incumbent wave that elected Barack Obama last year, only this time the voters' frustration was aimed at the Democrats. Brown didn't take any partisan shots at the president's health care plan. Instead, he said, voters were disgusted by the ugly sausage-making of the legislative process - a process they expected president Obama to change, as he had promised.

Senator SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): People are tired of the business as usual. What does that mean? That means the behind-the-scenes deals, the Nebraska, you know, subsidizing a Medicaid forever. Things like that have just - just drive people crazy. They want to make sure that their elected officials are doing things in a transparent manner.

The main thing that they want is good government back and to be proud of the process. And I think they sent a very, very powerful message that business as usual is not going to be the way we do it.

BLOCK: In an interview with ABC News today, President Obama agreed with some of Brown's analysis.

President BARACK OBAMA: The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they're frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years.

BLOCK: But on the Senate floor in Washington, a happy Senate minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell had a much more ideological interpretation of the Massachusetts upset.

Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): The American people have made it abundantly clear that they're more interested in shrinking unemployment than expanding government. They're tired of bailouts. They're tired of government spending more than ever at a time when most people are spending less. And they don't want the government taking over health care.

BLOCK: Although the White House and Democratic leaders are considering having the House simply accept the Senate version of health care, one way to pass a bill quickly, a handful of Democrats - liberals and moderates - say it's time to go back to the drawing board. Martin Frost is a former member of the House Democratic leadership.

Mr. MARTIN FROST (Former Congressman): The Democratic Party has got to figure out what's realistic now. The agenda was a little overambitious trying to do too many things at once. And I think what probably has to happen on health care is that they narrow this down to what's doable. I think it would be very difficult for the House just to take the Senate bill and pass it and then say: We'll fix it later.

I think what's more likely is that if they really want to pass something, that they scale this back to basic insurance reform and call the Republicans' bluff. See if the Republicans will vote for anything.

BLOCK: In the ABC interview today, President Obama seemed to endorse that approach. He told Democrats not to jam a new health care overhaul through the Senate. He urged them instead to focus on popular elements that people agree on. He described those core elements as health insurance reform, cost containment and health for small businesses - a signal that the president is rethinking his strategy for passing his number one domestic priority.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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