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Miracle in Massachusetts Deals Devastating Blow to Obamacare

Democrats are out of viable options to pass health care legislation.

By 1.20.10

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Last month, when Democrats managed to cut enough back room deals to pass a health care bill through the Senate before Christmas, I thought conservatives would need a miracle to prevent it from becoming law.

Well, we got our miracle.

In what seemed like a wild fantasy just a few weeks ago, Scott Brown actually pulled off a stunning upset by becoming the first Republican elected U.S. Senator of the liberal state of Massachusetts since the year The Godfather, Part I opened in movie theaters. And it wasn’t just any seat, but the seat once held by liberal icon Ted Kennedy.

More importantly, Brown became the 41st Republican vote in the Senate, a reality that likely means the end of Democratic health care legislation. While Obamacare is not done for quite yet, in football terms, its status went from “probable” to “doubtful” virtually overnight.

In anticipation of a possible Brown victory, Democratic leadership had already floated a number of possible ways to pass a health care bill even without 60 votes in the Senate. But as Tuesday drew to a close, it became clear that none of those options is still feasible.

In the afternoon, while polls were still open, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who voted for the Senate bill after the public option was removed, said on Fox News that even the fact that the Massachusetts race was close suggested the public was “really skeptical” about the legislation.

Within a few hours, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana went even further than Lieberman, warning that Democrats would face “catastrophe” if they ignored the message in Massachusetts.

“[I]f you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up,” Bayh told ABC News.

In some sense, it was predictable that moderates would make such statements given what was happening in a solidly blue state. But it was surprising to hear more liberal Democrats pile on.

"If she loses, it's over," Rep. Carolyn Maloney declared.

And another New Yorker, liberal stalwart Rep. Anthony Weiner, appeared on MSNBC -- while votes were still being counted -- and said that with just 59 votes in the Senate, “I don't see how we get this done.” He explained that he had just come from a Democratic caucus meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which they discussed negotiations to merge the House and Senate bills, and quipped, “it seems to have a flavor of whistling past the graveyard.”

Weiner argued that he had problems with the way the bill was sold, but that Democrats “have to be careful not to compound getting it wrong with a sense of arrogance that we’re going to push through no matter what any of the voters say.”

There were a few options Democrats had been toying with in the event of a Brown win. One idea was to stall Brown’s seating as long as possible, and quickly ram the revised health care bill through both chambers of Congress in the meantime. Another idea was to simply have the House pass the Senate version as is, while creating a separate bill with all of the compromises that could be passed through a complex process known as “reconciliation,” which only requires a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate. 

To begin with, both of these ideas would be contingent on the House passing a bill quickly. However, when the House bill originally passed in November, it was by a narrow 220 to 215 vote, meaning that Pelosi only had three votes to spare. In a vote on final passage, Pelosi would have to woo House liberals even though the Senate bill doesn’t have a public option and does have a “Cadillac tax” that affects union benefits. Meanwhile, a number of pro-life Democrats threatened to defect because of the weaker language on abortion. Even before the results came in, it was clear that the mere competitiveness of a Senate race in a state President Obama carried by 26 points would make it harder for Pelosi to ask members representing McCain districts to go along with the bill anyway.

As the night progressed, this perilous situation deteriorated even further for Democrats. Brown not only won the election, but he won by a comfortable 52 percent to 47 percent margin, or about 110,000 votes, making the strategy of delaying his seating untenable. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, Sen. Jim Webb put out a statement insisting that “I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated."

But it fell on the unlikeliest of all Democrats, crusading Massachusetts liberal Rep. Barney Frank, to deliver what may prove the coup de grâce for Obamacare.

In a statement read on the air by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Frank poured cold water on the possibility of reconciliation as an option to pass health care.

“[O]ur respect for democratic procedures must rule out any effort to pass a health care bill as if the Massachusetts election had not happened,” he explained in the statement.

While arguing that “I hope there will be a serious effort to change the Senate rule which means that 59 votes are not enough to pass major legislation,” he conceded that “those are the rules by which the health care bill was considered, and it would be wrong to change them in the middle of the process.”

The only possibility he left open was that he was “hopeful that some Republican Senators will be willing to discuss a revised version of health care reform.” But Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee negotiated throughout last summer, and could not reach an agreement. Whatever hope there might have been to reach a bipartisan deal was hindered further when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the New York Times that negotiations with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine were “a waste of time.” Even if there were theoretically some magical compromise to be reached between Republicans and Democrats, hammering out the details would drag on for months -- and nobody on Capitol Hill has the appetite for that.

Though it may be premature to declare health care legislation dead, one year to the day since he took the oath of office, Obama’s top domestic priority is in critical condition -- and fading fast.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein