WASHINGTON, D.C. — Now what?
That was the question ringing through the halls of the Capitol today after what some in the press have dubbed the “Scott Heard ‘Round the World” — Republican Scott Brown winning the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by the late Ted Kennedy. Brown has pledged to be the 41st vote against Democrat-backed health care legislation, leaving one bill that has already passed the House and another that cleared the Senate in limbo.
“There will be discussions among my colleagues about what happens next,” Sen. Al Franken said. “I’m not sure right now what the best process is.”
“It obviously has changed the debate, because the presumption before tonight was that the House and Senate leadership would come up with something that could pass both bodies,” Republican Rep. John Kline said, adding that without the Democrats’ 60th vote, it would be a nearly impossible task to pass anything resembling current legislation through the Senate.
Several options remain on the table, among them asking the House to approve the Senate bill or trying to push a merged bill through the Senate using budget reconciliation, a complex procedure that would only require 51 Senate votes but might not allow for all parts of the current legislation to go through. Alternately, leaders could force Senate Republicans to actually stand on the floor of the Senate and filibuster the health care bill or give up on current legislation and start anew with a smaller package.
“We’ve got to look at every option, including reconciliation,” Rep. Keith Ellison said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to buck up and do it.”
Part of the current uncertainty is because Brown’s victory snuck up on many in Washington.
At the end of last week, House Democrats held their annual caucus retreat. Not mentioned during that time was a contingency plan on what to do if Brown won. Polls at that point showed the race tightening, and as the week drew on, Brown pulled into the lead. According to Pollster.com, which tracks this sort of thing, no major independent survey showed the Democrat Coakley ahead after Jan. 11.
Yet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, just one hour before polls closed in Massachusetts, House Democrats held a caucus meeting where leaders briefed their members on the current negotiations between the House and the Senate. Democratic insiders said some parts of the compromise that have already been hammered out — public health, Indian health and parts of the Medicare and Medicaid costs — have already been sent to the Congressional Budget Office so the agency could get a jump start on scoring them. Not mentioned, according to insiders, was a detailed contingency plan should Brown win the election.
Rep. Betty McCollum said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the caucus that the plan was to continue moving forward with negotiations regardless of what happened in the special election.
Less than three hours later, Coakley conceded and Brown was declared the winner in Massachusetts, signaling an end to the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Democrats: Press on
So now what?
One plan that had been seriously considered was to have the House vote on the Senate’s already-passed bill, then use the ensuing technical amendments process to “fix” what House members don’t like. However, as the day wore on that scheme seemed to be losing favor amidst concerns that the Senate bill might not have enough House votes to pass. Rep. Bart Stupak — the Michigan Democrat who authored the abortion-restricting Stupak Amendment — estimated that only 100 Democrats would actually support the Senate’s bill if it came up for a vote, a guess that Rep. Collin Peterson said “probably isn’t that far off.”
“No, I would not vote yes, and I don’t think they could pass it in the House,” said Peterson, the only Minnesota Democrat to vote against the House’s health care reform bill.
“I don’t think I’m going to be voting for Ben Nelson’s Nebraska provision,” McCollum, referencing a deal cut with Nelson whereby 49 states would chip in to pay for Medicaid expansion in Nebraska alone now known colloquially as the “Cornhusker Kickback”.
In fact, a MinnPost survey of Minnesota House Democrats turned up just one — Rep. Tim Walz — who said that he’d likely back the Senate’s bill if it came to the House floor.
“I think I can be comfortable with that,” Walz said in an interview Monday. “I never saw this as one bill and done, there’s going to be more. It’s about changing the system that’s broken.”
It’s unclear how the other two Minnesota House Democrats, Keith Ellison and Jim Oberstar, would vote.
“I really do hate the Senate bill,” Ellison said, ticking off reasons like the lack of a public option and excise tax funding mechanisms. “The question is whether it’s better than nothing.”
Oberstar spokesman John Schadl, asked if his boss would back the Senate’s bill, said: “He’s not going to talk about hypotheticals right now. When legislation comes to the floor, he’ll look at it and make a decision.”
Kline and Minnesota’s two other House Republicans, Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen, voted against the House health care bill and would oppose the Senate’s version as well, staffers for both.
Just one Republican, Louisiana’s Anh “Joseph” Cao, voted for the House health care bill, but a Cao spokeswoman told the Washington Times he doesn’t support the Senate bill as written.
Scale it down
Republican leaders stood united Wednesday behind the notion of scrapping the current bills and starting over, with most joining Bachmann in her assessment that the Massachusetts election was a “profound indication” that voters have rejected the Democrats’ health care plans.
“We ought to stop, start over and go step-by-step to concentrate on the real problem, which is rising costs,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
“The American people could not have been clearer that they do not want this government takeover of health care,” agreed Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner. “If out-of-touch Washington Democrats try to jam it through anyways, they’ll have a firestorm on their hands.”
Kline suggested Democrats cut their losses and embrace a much smaller compromise measure consisting of items that could garner support from Republicans. Among his suggestions: Allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance, letting small businesses pool together to purchase coverage, eliminating restrictions on buying coverage across state lines and restricting medical malpractice lawsuits.
There’s certainly a part of the Democratic caucus that wants to do just that.
Peterson is among a group of Blue Dog Democrats pushing for a scaled-down bill to “do the stuff that can get bipartisan support.”
Included in Peterson’s proposal is adding a quality of care index to the Medicare reimbursement rate formula, a provision that would likely benefit Minnesota medical providers. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, for example, is sometimes paid just half of what other hospitals get in parts of Florida and Texas for doing the same procedures — despite the fact that Mayo’s outcomes are often better. Including quality of care in the final bill was described by both McCollum and Sen. Amy Klobuchar as their top priority for negotiations.
Peterson and Kline may have an unlikely ally on that front — the president himself. The Associated Press reported late Wednesday that the White House may now be seeking a pared-down bill in the wake of Brown’s victory. Issues important to White House in that compromise include the quality care and young adult provisions, as well as insurance premium assistance for small businesses and those with low-incomes.
Should a compromise plan not be possible, Peterson’s not opposed to punting. “I do think there are problems with the health care system that need to be fixed, but I’m not in the camp that says we have to do something no matter what,” he said.
Get something done
Most Minnesota Democrats, however, began today the same way they began Tuesday — determined to get something done.
“In every football game, the winning team often throws a pick or has a three-and-out [possession],” Ellison said. “This is the time that the people committed to social justice have to ask themselves how committed they are.”
“I know the Republicans want this to be dead,” McCollum said, “but we’re committed to moving forward on health care reform.”
McCollum said there may yet be a way to move health care reform through the House and Senate. Congressional history is chock full of procedural precedent for moving tricky legislation through both houses on tight majorities, she said, adding that something is bound to work.
After all, Democrats still control 59 votes in the Senate. And despite what some pundits are saying, 41 is not all of a sudden equal to or greater than 59. Democrats also command a 78-vote margin in the House that has been large enough to hold on every major piece of legislation that Democratic leaders have pushed so far — health care reform included.
“This is a good bill that I believe in,” Franken said. “Negotiations have been ongoing, they’ll keep going, and I’m hopeful we can still get it done.”
Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.