What Are Democrats Planning for Health Care Reform if They Lose the Massachusetts Senate Race?

Jake Tapper and Jonathan Karl report:

Congressional Democrats and White House officials negotiating health care reform are paying close attention to the Massachusetts Senate race, where Republican candidate Scott Brown has said he will be the 41st vote to block the final vote on the final bill.

Normal Senate rules require 60 votes to proceed to a vote on final passage; with the seat-warming Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., replaced by Brown, Democrats would no longer have those 60 votes.

Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate flailing in her match with Brown to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has caused much Democratic angst. If she loses -- as polls indicate she might -- Democrats want to be in a position to pass a bill through the Senate before Brown is sworn in.

Under Massachusetts law, the secretary of state must wait “at least” 10 days before certifying the results, to give time for absentee and military ballots to be received and counted. That means Brown could be sworn in as early as January 29, leaving Democrats very little time to maneuver under their current plan of hashing out a compromise between the House and Senate bills. In fact, it may be impossible to get it done in time.

After a final health care deal is struck (and Democrats are hoping that will happen soon), it goes to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for a cost estimate, a process expected to take 10 days. After that, it will take at least seven days to pass the bill in the House and the Senate.

Bottom line is, under the current plan, Unless either 1) the certification in Massachusetts is delayed; or, 2) CBO works much faster than expected, Democrats would be unable to pass a health care bill before losing their 60th vote.

Another factor: An upset GOP victory in Massachusetts would be to Democrats like the ball that slipped through Bill Buckner’s legs in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. If they manage to lose Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Democrats, like the Red Sox in Game 7, may be too shell-shocked to win as spooked moderates -- who come from places much less Democratic than Massachusetts -- become more reluctant to take another tough vote on an unpopular bill.

One possible contingency plan Democrats are making if Brown wins: have the House pass the Senate bill, so the Senate doesn’t have to vote any more on the matter.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told the White House that she’s skeptical the House would pass that legislation, given the stark differences in some areas, but Senate Democrats and White House officials would push hard the notion that the bills are 90 percent similar and not doing so would be allowing the insurance companies to win.

Another idea that the House Democrats are discussing assuming Brown wins: having Senate Democrats force the bill through by bypassing normal Senate rules and passing the legislation through reconciliation -- requiring only 50 votes. That would even allow some moderates to peel away.

One option no one seems to be seriously discussing is delaying Brown being seated, though Republicans have already dispatched legal teams to Massachusetts in anticipation of any possible recount or other legal challenge that could delay Brown’s certification -- if, of course, he wins.

-- Jake Tapper and Jonathan Karl

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