What Happens if Democrats Lose in Massachusetts?

A Scott Brown victory would send shock waves through Democratic Party circles, the Senate and the White House--and not just because of the improbability of a Republican win in deep-blue Massachusetts. The real impact would be more immediate, jeopardizing passage of a health-reform plan carefully and painstakingly stitched together to win exactly 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, and not yet ready for its prime-time vote to move to final enactment.

Democrats have three options. One is to speed up delicate negotiations between House and Senate Democrats in order to bring up the bill before Brown gets sworn in. Even with their current sense of urgency, that is dicey at best. The bill will need to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, meaning at minimum several days. Then a vote on final passage could be delayed for yet more days, using a variety of parliamentary tactics, in the Senate. Democrats control the Senate, so they can delay the swearing-in of Brown, but to do so for weeks would be uncomfortable and probably would not play well politically.

The second option would be to go back to Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the only two Republicans who might consider supporting a bill. Snowe's refusal to vote for the Senate bill in December was in part based on substance, but in part a protest of the Democrats' decision to get to 60 votes without serious negotiations with her. Could she be brought back to the table with the requisite groveling and concessions--without in turn losing another Democrat along the way?

The third option is reconciliation. While it is possible to lower the threshold in the Senate to 50 votes under the budget rules, it would mean a convoluted and inadequate health bill that would expire in five years. Three lousy options explain why Democrats are praying that Coakley limps across the finish line.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: thepodger/Flickr/Creative Commons

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