Moment of truth

The seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) will be temporarily filled by Paul Kirk. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has said explicitly and repeatedly that she wants to vote for a bill, should it answer her concerns. And half a year into the tumultuous debate, industry — which succeeded in killing off reform in 1993 — is still at the proverbial table.

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So Democrats likely have their 59th and 60th votes in the Senate, and as long as they stick with something deficit-neutral, the center can hold. Look past the Republicans — past Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) outcry about process, and beyond Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) declaration that the Senate Finance Committee bill “is a stunning assault on liberty.” Republicans, whom Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) spent six months riling at least half of his political party to engage, matter no longer.

The fate of reform is not in the hands of the GOP, President Obama or the Democratic leadership in the House or Senate. It rests in the hands of liberal Democrats, and the weeks to come will determine whether or not they are willing to deliver on the party’s promise. Of course, it’s not yet time to call the roll in the full House or Senate, but as of now liberal resistance shows no signs of retreat. As the Baucus bill makes its way through the Finance Committee, liberal Democrats will attempt to replace an exchange of insurance cooperatives with a government plan, and could push for an expansion of drug company subsidies for low-income patients beyond the terms of a deal the Obama administration cut months ago with the drug industry.

This week Michael O’Brien reported in our newspaper that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is helping liberals take a whip count of members of the Congressional Progressive, Black, Hispanic and Asian caucuses to see if 60 members can block passage of any bill that doesn’t contain a public plan “regardless of what the president and leadership says.” No matter that a public plan can’t pass the Senate.

The longer the Democrats take, the more time Republicans have to sharpen their attacks on their consensus bill. And it is later than they think. In just six weeks gubernatorial elections will be held in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which Obama won handily, and Republicans are ahead in both races. Bellwether losses in those two states — like the ones Democrats experienced in 1993 — would shake the resolve of every Democrat holding a marginal seat in the House and Senate and could spell the end of reform.

Here’s the bad news: With a healthcare overhaul not set to take effect until 2013, passing healthcare reform won’t secure the political fortunes of Democrats and President Obama in a shaky economy with stubbornly high unemployment. Yet failure to enact long-promised reform for the second time will cement the view that the Democratic Party cannot govern and could doom the party in the midterm elections.

“This is our opportunity to make history,” Baucus said this week. In words directed at his own party, he called on senators to be “courageous.” He is correct. This is the Democrats’ big chance, perhaps their one and only chance to reform the healthcare system for a generation to come — will they take it?

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.