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.

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About the Author

 

Norman J.
Ornstein
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
  • Phone: 202-862-5893
    Email: nornstein@aei.org
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