Even if Brown Beats Coakley, Health Reform Could Be Saved

Democrats could still pass the bill.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

If Republican Scott Brown wins the open Massachusetts senate seat today, he would give the GOP a 41st vote, preventing Senate Democrats from breaking any filibusters, virtually guaranteeing that a revised healthcare bill would not pass the Senate. But that doesn't mean that healthcare reform would be dead. Democrats could still get a health reform bill to President Obama's desk. And they should.

I'm not talking about trying to pass something through the Senate before a Sen.-elect Brown was seated. Democratic leaders, the New York Times reports today, "have essentially ruled that out as a politically perilous option." Instead, as the Times reports and as Talking Points Memo has been arguing for several days, House Democrats could simply hold their noses and pass the Senate bill as is.

There are arguments against: A Brown win in Massachusetts would be seen as a repudiation of the Obama healthcare plan (even though the Bay State already has a popular, government-run healthcare plan much like the one proposed nationally, and which Brown supports). That result would only reinforce the health plan's dismal polling numbers.

But having invested so much in health insurance reform, Democrats would be foolish to let the issue die. There's no up-side politically. At this point, they've absorbed all of the negatives of the health reform bill--they created it and they own it. If they let it die they won't get any credit for having stopped the unpopular legislation. No House member or senator who voted for the bill will plausibly be able to argue--shades of John Kerry--that they were against it after they were for it. They'd look like political opportunists, fools and Republican wannabes. As TPM's Josh Marshall noted: "That's the lesson of 1994, the conservative and moderate Democrats who killed health care reform derived not an ounce of benefit for having done so. Indeed, they were slaughtered en masse."

And there may yet be an up-side. The argument White House officials make is not unreasonable: that when and if the bill actually passes it will become popular as the focus on it shifts from divisive arguments about the public option, abortion coverage, and the like to ending lifetime coverage caps and preventing insurance companies from using preexisting conditions to deny coverage. The Democrats have lost the debate, in other words, but could still win the war.

And that's because while the Senate bill isn't great, it's a good enough start. And good enough is the best for which Democrats will be able to hope if Brown wins. But there's no drawing board to go back to here. Health reform isn't an issue Republicans are going to take up in earnest. If this effort fails it'll be at least 15 more years, probably much more, before anyone tries again. That's 15 more years of people denied coverage by health insurance company bureaucrats for reasons that all translate to: We don't want to spend the money.

The biggest impediment to the House passing the Senate bill is, of course, House members. They have any number of problems with the Senate bill, on issues like abortion, taxes on high end health plans, the public option, and so on. Their swallowing hard and passing the Senate bill seems unlikely.

But if they fail to pass a healthcare bill, Democrats as a party will have achieved a remarkable political hat-trick: Anger base liberals by failing to produce a perfect progressive bill, anger independents by producing a bill that was too liberal, and anger pragmatic progressives by failing to produce anything at all.

And if that happens, Democrats would richly deserve the political drubbing awaiting them in November.

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