A specter haunts Democratic-led Washington. It's the specter of a special election in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, not just slipping through Democrats' fingers but in the process dooming health-care reform. But it doesn't have to -- even if things go badly in the Bay State.
In case you haven't heard, Massachusetts voters will go to the polls today to choose someone to serve the remaining three years of the late Ted Kennedy's Senate term. The Republican candidate, state Sen. Scott Brown, is running a surprisingly strong campaign, while the Democrat, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, has been lurching from one bumble to another. A spate of polls in the last week showed the race to be essentially a dead heat.
This isn't just any Senate race. At stake is the Democrats' 60th vote in the Senate (if you count Joe Lieberman), which enables them to overcome the Republican filibusters that now occur on virtually every meaningful bill. Within the next couple of weeks, both houses will receive the final version of health-care reform. If Brown were to be in the Senate at that point, the filibuster would succeed, and the bill would be dead.
Some are even touting a Brown win as the end of the Obama presidency. The scenario goes something like this: Health-care reform dies, and with a weak economy and Obama's signature domestic initiative defeated, Democrats limp into this year's midterm elections, which are a blowout victory for Republicans, as waves of rabid tea-baggers storm Capitol Hill, wearing funny hats and waving signs likening Obama to Hitler. With their new majority in the House and having reduced the Democratic margin in the Senate, Republicans grind the entire Obama agenda to a halt. Nothing happens for the next two years, until Obama is defeated by Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, or whoever gets the GOP nomination in 2012. Then you can watch all that hope and change drown in your bitter tears.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Brown has a shot to win -- more of a shot than a Republican has any right to. We're talking about a state where Obama beat McCain by 26 points, all 10 of the state's representatives in the House are Democrats, the Legislature is absurdly lopsided (Democrats have a 35-to-5 advantage in the Senate and a 144-to-16 advantage in the House), and there are no Republican statewide elected officials.
But even if Brown should prevail, there is a path -- more than one, actually -- for Democrats to lunge across the finish line and pass health-care reform. It might not be pretty, but after the last year of legislative ugliness, it won't much matter.
The first path would be for the House -- where they have this strange tradition in which the majority rules -- to simply pass, as is, the bill that already passed the Senate. Obama would sign it, and the infrastructure of reform would be in place. Then they could attempt to correct some of the Senate bill's weaknesses in the reconciliation process, which only requires 51 votes (though it does limit which parts of the bill can be addressed).
The other path -- and the preferable one, from a policy perspective -- would be to get the bill done before Brown is sworn in. Keep in mind that the White House and congressional leaders are nearly done hammering out the differences between the two chambers' bills. Though reports about what is in this version are sketchy, it looks to be a considerable improvement on the Senate bill. They have to get a score from the Congressional Budget Office, which takes a few days. Then depending on how the bill is offered in the Senate, a vote could come within a few days after that. In other words, no matter what happens in Massachusetts, if Democrats decide to move things through quickly, we could get a vote on health care within 10 days.
Last week, Brown alleged that a conspiracy was afoot to prevent him from taking office until health reform passes. But no conspiracy would be necessary. According to the person in charge of elections in Massachusetts, Secretary of State William Galvin, state law requires local election officials to wait 10 days after the election to make sure that all overseas and military ballots have been returned; they then have five more days to submit their official results. That's over two weeks right there. Then the Senate has to arrange for the vice president, in his role as president of the Senate, to preside over the swearing-in. That could add a few more days, depending on his schedule. Put it all together, and it should be relatively easy to pass health-care reform before the new senator takes office, even without engaging in any of the delaying tactics Republicans routinely use (recall that because of Republican challenges to his victory in the 2008 Senate contest in Minnesota, Al Franken didn't take office until eight months after the election).
Republicans will, of course, scream and cry about how awful Democrats are being, which is usually more than enough to make some Democrats knuckle under. The waverers will no doubt say, "We shouldn't do this -- the public will be mad at us for manipulating the process!" There are two answers to that concern. The first is that the public doesn't give a damn about process. They care about results. Once the bill is passed, and the reform provisions begin to take effect, the debate Americans have about health care will be about the program, not about the process by which it was enacted. If the program works, the public will like it. When the GOP controlled Congress and George W. Bush was president, Republicans engaged in some atrocious maneuvers -- including an alleged attempt to bribe one wavering member -- in order to pass their Medicare prescription-drug bill. Does the public care these days? Nope. The program works reasonably well (if not as well as it could), and seniors are pretty happy with it.
The second reason Democrats shouldn't hesitate to play a little hardball is this: They are doing what they were elected to do. Let's not forget that the American people elected a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic president who pledged to reform health care when he ran. Does one election in one state change that? Is a 60-40 advantage in the Senate a mandate for action but a 59-41 advantage a reason the Democrats should fold up their agenda? The 60-vote filibuster requirement isn't an expression of popular will; it's a quirk of Senate rules, and a profoundly anti-democratic one at that.
Or think about it this way. Let's say we count how many people each senator represents (I'm using 2009 census data and counting each individual as one-half a constituent for each of his or her two senators). Before today, Democratic senators supporting health-care reform represented a total of 196 million Americans (or 64 percent), while Republican senators opposing reform represented a total of 110 million Americans (or 36 percent). If Brown wins, Democratic senators supporting reform will represent 193 million Americans (63 percent), while Republicans opposing reform will represent 113 million (37 percent). It would be hard to argue that that small change means Democrats no longer have a right to enact their agenda.
This will all be moot, of course, if Coakley prevails. But if Brown wins, Democrats have a choice to make. They can abandon health-care reform literally days from the culmination of a seven-decade effort and betray the millions of Americans waiting for relief from this abomination of a health-insurance system. Doing so would tell the public in no uncertain terms that electing broad Democratic majorities is a waste of time and virtually guarantee the loss of one and perhaps both houses of Congress in this fall's election. Or they can show some spine and do what they were elected to do, even if Republicans squawk.
We'll see which path they choose.