Brown's election may ending up being a positive for health-care reform

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Remember how Republican Scott P. Brown's victory in January's Senate race in Massachusetts was supposed to represent a mortal blow to health-care reform?

"Probably back to the drawing board," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) declared the next day. "Might be dead," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) surmised. "We're back to where we were maybe even years ago," concluded Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

But rather than dooming the effort, Brown's win appears to have helped Democrats refocus the legislation and their strategy for selling it. Once on track to produce a bill that Republicans were prepared to depict as partisan and laden with special-interest perks, Democrats now expect to unveil legislation that costs less and more aggressively tackles health-care inflation -- a package they say could leave them less vulnerable in November. It drops the "Cornhusker Kickback" that so infuriated voters, and includes a few Republican ideas tacked on by President Obama.

"There's no government takeover of health care; there's an expansion of the private market, subsidies, more choice -- I mean, it's so much of what many of us had hoped for from the very beginning," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a moderate and reluctant supporter of the original Senate bill.

The House and Senate will launch the final legislative phase this week, with the aim of holding votes before the end of the month. The action will come in two phases. First the House will vote on the bill the Senate approved on Christmas Eve. Then each chamber is expected to consider a package of "fixes" offered under a budget rule known as reconciliation that will protect it from a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats could still fail to pass the overhaul for any number of reasons, and Republicans are vowing an epic showdown on the Senate floor to derail the reconciliation package. Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, which holds jurisdiction over reconciliation bills, has called the legislation "a giant asteroid headed at the Earth." He has pledged to block it.

Democratic pragmatism

But since Brown's election cost them their filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, Democrats have been in a more pragmatic mode. Though significant internal policy divisions remain, a new flexibility appears to have eased some ideological battles within the party.

The loss also forced Obama to engage more forcefully to save his top domestic policy goal by assuming the role of chief negotiator, which many Democrats had urged him to take on months ago. He has offered his own plan, in broad strokes, and convened a televised seven-hour summit in which he addressed major GOP criticisms. Both moves were key to restoring momentum, congressional Democrats said.

An attempt by a major California insurer to raise premiums by 39 percent also appears to have helped Democrats regain the political will to push health legislation to final passage without the cover of Republican support.

"The fog has lifted," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said. "We have all had a chance to catch our breath. And I think people come to the conclusion that whatever the flaws, the status quo is not an option."

Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 Senate votes, enough to use the filibuster to block a final health-care bill from passing. To avoid that, Democrats will be forced to rely on the risky reconciliation process, allowing the legislation to clear the Senate on a simple majority vote, but under tight restrictions.

Although the Senate was the main obstacle to final passage, the primary burden of making reconciliation work will fall to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif). Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) can release up to nine Democrats who had voted for the original bill, and still retain the 50 votes he needs for passage. But because so many House Democrats dislike the Senate bill, Pelosi will probably need to gain converts among the 39 Democrats who opposed the original House legislation, which passed in November on a 220 to 215 vote.

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