What Coakley's Defeat Means for Healthcare Reform
This article originally appeared on The Media Consortium.
Last night, Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill Teddy Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts. Coakley's loss puts healthcare reform in jeopardy.
With Coakley's defeat, the Democrats lose their filibuster-proof sixty-seat majority in the Senate. However, as Paul Waldman explains in The American Prospect, Coakley's loss is not the end for healthcare reform.
Remember, the Senate already passed its healthcare reform bill in December. Now, the House has to pass its version of the bill. The original plan was for House and Senate leaders to blend the two bills together in conference to create a final piece of legislation (a k a a conference report) that both houses would vote on. Once the Democrats are down to fifty-nine votes, the Republicans can filibuster the conference report and kill healthcare reform.
But if the House passes the same bill the Senate just passed, there's no need to reconcile the two bills. This so-called "ping-pong" approach may be the best way to salvage healthcare reform. Some of the flaws in the Senate bill could still be fixed later through budget reconciliation. It would be an uphill battle, but nothing compared to starting healthcare reform from scratch.
The second option would be to get the bill done before Scott Brown is sworn in. According to Waldman, there could be a vote within ten days. The House and Senate have already drafted some compromise legislation, which Waldman thinks is superior to the straight Senate bill. If that language were sent to the Congressional Budget Office immediately, the Senate could vote before Brown is sworn in.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement last night that Brown won't be sworn in until the election results are certified, a process that could take two weeks. Historically, the winners of special Senate elections have taken over from their interim predecessors within a couple of days. If the Republicans were in this position, they'd use every procedural means at their disposal to drag out the process. The question is whether the Democrats have the fortitude to make the system work for them.
Remember how the Republicans did everything in their power to hold up the Senate healthcare vote, including forcing the clerk to read the 767-page bill aloud? They were trying to delay the vote until after the Massachusetts special election. If it's okay for the GOP to stall, the Democrats should be allowed to drag their feet on swearing in Brown.
Also, remember how the Republicans fought to keep Al Franken from being seated after he defeated Norm Coleman? For his part, Franken says he's determined to pass healthcare reform one way or another, according to Rachel Slajda of Talking Points Memo.
Incongruously, some Democrats are arguing that rushing to a vote would be a violation of some vague democratic principle. Senator Jim Webb wasted no time in proclaiming that there should be no vote before Brown was sworn in. Representative Barney Frank, of all people, averred last night that the Democrats should respect the democratic process and start acting like they have fifty-nine votes while they still have sixty.
All this talk of "respecting the process" is hand-waving disguised as civics. According to the process, Scott Brown isn't the senator from Massachusetts yet. According to the process, you have the votes until you don't.
Talk about moving the goalposts. It's bad enough that we need sixty votes to pass a bill on any given day. Now, they'd have us believe that we also need sixty votes next week. Webb and Frank are arguing that Brown's victory obliges Democrats to behave as if Brown were already the senator from Massachusetts. Of course, if Webb won't play ball, it's a moot point. The whole fast-track strategy is predicated on sixty votes. Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly thinks that Webb effectively took the fast-track option off the table with his strongly worded statement.
Katrina vanden Huevel of The Nation argues that this historic upset should be a wake-up call to President Barack Obama to embrace populism with renewed fervor. I would add that Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change. There is no better way to fulfill a promise of change than to reshape the nation's healthcare system and provide insurance for millions of Americans.