Democrats Weigh Contingency Plans

Posted January 19, 2010 at 6:44pm

Updated: 9:37 p.m.

Hours before Republican Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts dealt a fatal blow to Senate Democrats’ 60-seat supermajority, Democratic Congressional leaders on Tuesday were already eyeing a fallback to salvage health care reform: requiring the House to adopt a Senate-passed version of the bill while moving future changes through a separate budget procedure.

Democratic leaders officially kept their options open during the day, sidestepping a detailed discussion of the path forward on health care at an afternoon huddle, according to leadership aides briefed on the Members-only session. Discussions were expected to get more serious today, as the reality of the Massachusetts defeat takes hold.

In the meantime, House Democratic top brass were projecting confidence that the reform drive would continue apace. “Whatever happens in Massachusetts, we will have quality, affordable health care for all Americans and it will be soon,— Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters after the leadership meeting.

Pelosi brushed off questions about the House not having the votes to pass a standalone Senate health care bill — an option that has been floated — and said the White House has not asked House Democratic leaders to prepare for that option in the event that Senate Democrats lose their filibuster-proof majority. House Democrats, particularly liberals, have bristled at that idea since many feel they have already made too many concessions in the House bill.

But leading Democrats insisted that talks to reconcile the competing House and Senate health care bills are continuing as planned and pointed to the fact that they have sent key revenue and investment provisions to the Congressional Budget Office for review.

“What we’re doing now is we’re continuing the same process we started last week,— Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said. The Massachusetts election “will come and go. … We still have to get this done so then we can talk to the Caucus about what we might or might not do, depending on what happens [in the election]. But I’m not going to engage in that speculation at this stage.—

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday morning likewise declined to tip leadership’s hand — or to foreclose on any options for pulling the beleaguered package across the finish line.

His playbook still includes pushing the measure through both chambers before Republican state Sen. Scott Brown gets seated, should he pull off a win. Hoyer confirmed it would be feasible for lawmakers to wrap up work on the measure in the next 15 days, before the deadline for the Massachusetts secretary of state to certify the election results. But he also appeared to leave open the possibility that the House could adopt the $871 billion Senate version, saying, “clearly, the Senate bill is better than nothing.—

Under that scenario, the House could simply adopt the Senate bill, with the understanding that lawmakers could then move any changes through the reconciliation process to bring it closer to the House version. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), who has helped lead the House charge against the Senate bill’s financing mechanism, a tax on high-cost insurance plans, said he would keep an open mind about the dual-track approach — provided leaders could offer solid assurances that reconciliation would hew closely to the compromise the two chambers have already forged to scale back the tax. “It’s assuming that there really is a pretty solid scenario,— he said. “Everyone is going to be focused on how that reconciliation piece of it proceeds. I’m certainly open to what they can offer us if they can do it with some security.—

Senate Democratic aides said leaders in that chamber, meanwhile, were reluctant to put too much pressure on the House to pass their bill.

“They need to come to that conclusion on their own,— said one aide.

But in order for the House to agree to take up the Senate measure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would likely have to promise to force another bill through his chamber that would address House demands that taxes on those high-cost, or “Cadillac,— health care plans be reduced and that subsidies for people subjected to a new federal mandate on insurance coverage be increased. However, the language of the second bill would likely need to be agreed upon between the House and Senate before the House moved forward with passage of the first bill, a knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide speculated.

“House Members would want to see what the package would look like before they vote on it. I mean, I doubt they want to buy a pig in a poke,— the aide said. However, the aide cautioned that no decisions would be made until the results of the Massachusetts election were clear.

If a second health care bill dealing with the House’s concerns moved under budget reconciliation rules, Reid would only need a simple majority — or 51 votes — to prevail. That would mean that he could lose as many as nine Democrats and still pass the measure.

Reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered, but they are governed by strict rules that require every provision have a budgetary impact. Because of the rules requiring budget implications, Democrats have largely rejected the notion of trying to pass the entire health care bill under reconciliation.

For example, major insurance reforms, such as eliminating discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, would not be permitted in such a bill.

Similarly, House Member concerns about abortion and immigration language in the Senate bill would likely not be addressed in any reconciliation package.

Meanwhile, Health care negotiations between the House and Senate were idling Tuesday. Leaders have already sent the bulk of the bill to the CBO for an official cost estimate, and it was unclear when that review might be completed. But outstanding disagreements on abortion and immigration — which are unlikely to have significant costs associated with them — were on hold as Democrats waited breathlessly for the election results in Massachusetts.

“I think that the leadership is committed to doing everything it can to make sure that the health care bill moves as quickly as possible to the president’s desk,— Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said Tuesday. “Obviously, the vote in Massachusetts could have an impact on the strategy.—

Some Democratic aides acknowledged that the party made a strategic error in relying solely on the votes of Democrats to get the health care bill passed in the Senate. Though Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority, requiring consensus from all 60 Members of the caucus left no room for error and gave individual Democratic Senators more incentive to play for their own political interests, rather than promoting a united party front.

“Sixty was the worst thing that ever happened to us because it empowered people to be selfish, egotistical whiners,— said one Senate Democratic aide.

The aide added that the tactic damaged Democrats by exposing the natural tensions between party liberals and moderates.

“The problem is we play against each other all the time,— the aide said.

Before the Massachusetts results were even in on Tuesday, Democrats said that, win or lose, the race was certainly making them reassess their strategic vision for the year. “In this town, there’s spin, there’s perception and there’s reality,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “And regardless of the outcome, I think Democrats will take a look at the legislative agenda to see if it needs weakening going into the midterms.—

Democrats had been racing to finish the health care bill before the special election appeared close, because they felt bogged down by the fight and wanted to pivot to bills intended to spur job creation and address economic concerns.

“To some extent, there already has been a realization that we need to more directly address the economy and jobs, and this year’s agenda will reflect that. It’s time to get back to basics,— said another senior Senate Democratic aide.

Aides said that while Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley clearly ran a poor campaign, her failures were not the sole cause of the party’s troubles in the state. They noted that the Massachusetts race made the country’s anger and frustration over the economy more visible, but they cautioned against framing the entire 2010 election around the special election.

“There’s a political ice age between this race and November,— said the first senior aide. “A lot can happen.—

Jennifer Bendery and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.