Policy Documents

Surprising Political Outcome in Massachusetts Threatens to Derail Health Care Legislation

Benjamin Domenech –
November 2, 2009


Democrats gathered in late-night meetings on Tuesday to discuss the path ahead for President Obama's health care legislation following the surprising election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

Brown, whose election over Democrat Martha Coakley represented a shocking political upset, gives Republicans the 41st vote they would need in the Senate to block a compromise version of the legislation which was expected to emerge in the coming days from a Democratic conference committee led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

The options for Democrats, as outlined by policy expert James Capretta and political reporter David Freddoso, are extremely limited in the aftermath of Brown's victory. The most widely discussed possibility is that the House could simply vote to pass the Senate-approved version of health care legislation as-is, perhaps altering certain aspects of the bill through amendments to budget legislation -- but as Freddoso explains, there are several reasons this would be a challenging proposition for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA):

(1) Abortion funding. Last time, the House bill passed, 220-215, with language by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that absolutely prevents ObamaCare from subsidizing abortions -- something demanded by dozens of Democrats who ultimately voted for the bill. The Senate bill does not contain this language. This is one problem that cannot be fixed under the complex rules involved in budget reconciliation.

(2) Public Option The House bill passed with a government-run public option plan that many liberals demanded. The Senate bill contains no such provision. Depending on the details of whatever compromise is reached, this might be fix-able through reconciliation. It might not.

(3) House Math. Among the "yes" votes last time: Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who has since resigned from Congress. Two others, Stupak and Joseph Cao, R-La., are Catholic pro-lifers who have promised to vote no on the Senate bill. House Democratic leaders therefore start by facing a 217-217 vote. If Stupak really has the dozen supporters he claims, that brings the starting vote to 205-229, without considering the question of liberals who won't compromise on the public option. It's a tall order, even if we assume that Speaker Pelosi gave a free pass to several of her members last time and has a few "yes" votes hidden up her sleeve.

(4) Sheer panic. If you're a Democratic Congressman and you have any excuse to avoid it, do you really want to vote for the bill that just cost your party a Senate seat in bluest-of-blue Massachusetts?

Another option for the Democrats consists of voting on the health care package before Brown formerly takes his seat -- but this parliamentary procedure has already been ruled out by moderate Democrat Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who said Tuesday night that no votes should take place -- on health care reform or other major issues -- before Sen-elect Brown is seated.

As for reactions to Brown's election in the House, liberal Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) expressed the frustrations of the left as he lashed out at President Obama for his lack of leadership on health care:

"We started out from the place that the White House said, ‘We’ll accept anything. If you get 60 votes, we’ll take anything,’" Weiner told reporters. "There was a basic decision made to let the Senate write this bill in any way they thought they could to get 60 votes without any true, muscular leadership on the part of the White House," Weiner told reporters. "Their argument has been, 'This is only way we get 60, okay?' Well, now we have 59. So, thank you."