By Alexander Bolton - 01/20/10 02:51 AM EST
Democratic leaders are scrambling to save healthcare reform legislation in the wake of a shocking Republican victory for the Senate seat held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met Tuesday afternoon to discuss contingency plans in case state Sen. Scott Brown (R) defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D).
Democratic leaders told rank-and-file colleagues there would be no caucus-wide discussion of a Plan B for healthcare reform until they knew the results of the special election in Massachusetts.
Brown’s triumph over Coakley, however, means that Democratic leaders need to recalibrate their plans. That’s because Brown gives Republicans 41 seats in the Senate — enough to block healthcare reform legislation.
Democratic aides say that senior White House officials would prefer the House pass the Senate healthcare bill without changes, which would obviate the need for a second Senate vote on the legislation.
The problem is that many liberal lawmakers in the House don’t like the Senate bill.
To compensate for this opposition, there is a proposal that the House would then pass a second measure making changes to the Senate bill. That measure could then pass through the upper chamber at a later date under special budgetary rules known as reconciliation, which allow legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Since Democrats and allied independents still control 59 seats, strategists believe it would be relatively easy to pass a second measure that would contain compromises reached between Senate and House negotiators, such as a limit on the tax imposed on high-cost insurance plans.
But Democratic lawmakers were split Tuesday evening over the prospect of passing the Senate bill and hoping for a later fix.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said the Senate healthcare bill and the accompanying fix under reconciliation would have to be passed in tandem.
“It would have to be so quick that it would have happen at the same time,” Weiner said.
Democratic aides, however, estimate that it would take weeks to prepare a bill for passage under reconciliation protection. White House officials are pressing for House lawmakers to pass the Senate bill much sooner.
Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), a Democrat who opposes abortion rights, balked at the prospect of voting for the Senate bill, which does less to restrict women who receive federal subsidies from buying insurance policies covering abortion.
Several House lawmakers floated the prospect of breaking the massive healthcare reform bill into smaller packages that could each win 60 votes on the Senate floor.
But a senior Democrat questioned the feasibility of that proposal by noting they would have to overcome many GOP filibusters in the Senate to pass healthcare reform piecemeal.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday gave a boost to the idea of passing the Senate healthcare reform bill un-amended.
“I think the Senate bill clearly is better than nothing,” Hoyer told reporters.
Hoyer also gave support to the option of passing a final healthcare bill, one that reflects the compromises struck by Senate and House negotiators, before Brown is seated in the Senate. Hoyer said it would be feasible to pass the enormous bill in the next 15 days, the time estimated to certify Brown’s victory.
Local election officials in Massachusetts could wait 10 days to collect the ballots of overseas military personnel and then another five to send the results to Secretary of State William Galvin.
But some Democrats have dismissed a speedy vote as an underhanded subversion of the will of voters.
And Republicans have warned such a move would trigger a strong backlash across the country.
Nevertheless, a senior Democratic lawmaker asked “why should that [option] be crossed off the list.”
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and one of the architects of the House healthcare reform bill, said Democratic leaders had no set plan about how to proceed.
“We don’t have any definitive answers,” Miller said. “We have to talk to the Senate and the White House.”