K Streeters Feel Shock of Brown Senate Win

Posted January 20, 2010 at 6:52pm

Sen.-elect Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) victory on Tuesday is sending shock waves down K Street, where trade associations, contract lobbyists and interest groups began frantically reconsidering their advocacy strategies in light of the GOP’s new power to filibuster.

“Things couldn’t be better,— a Republican lobbyist said on Wednesday. “For the first time in a long time, clients care about what Republicans think, and our clients are beginning to wrap their arms around the fact that Democrats are going to get murdered in November.—

As Bay State Attorney General Martha Coakley’s (D) special election loss began to sink in Wednesday, the fate of ongoing negotiations to rewrite health care laws immediately became the subject of a multitude of downtown conference calls and face-to-face strategy sessions. Climate change proposals, “card check— legislation and other contentious bills that had tenuous Senate support even before Massachusetts voters went to the polls Tuesday were also early consensus picks of legislation that may whither on the vine if not altered dramatically.

“Card check is dead,— one source familiar with the negotiations said early Wednesday.

Even with a full legislative plate that includes financial regulatory reform, how to ram through a health care reform bill with 59 members of the Senate Democratic Conference dominated conversations on Wednesday, with lobbyists speculating that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will use arcane revenue rules to will a bill to the president’s desk.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal health care advocacy group, warned that Democrats will be in more trouble if they fail to move ahead on the reform legislation. Noting that the Democrats still control the White House and both chambers of Congress, Pollack said, “If Democrats cannot deliver on the top domestic priority, it will be hard for the Democratic Party to assert it is the party of change,— he said.

Pollack said he is open to the House passing the Senate version followed by a budget reconciliation measure to resolve the differences. He said most of the differences, which involve money, could be addressed in the reconciliation measure.

Ralph Neas, president of the National Coalition on Health Care and a former aide to Edward Brooke, the last GOP Senator from Massachusetts, said that while there was no consensus on the next move, interest groups and Democratic leaders will try to find a way shortly to push through health care legislation.

Neas also agreed that reconciliation rules are the most obvious vehicle to move the health care overhaul. Reconciliation measures require only a majority vote in the Senate and would not require Brown’s support, although Neas stressed he should be present to vote on it.

Another option making the rounds at K Street firms is the idea of Congress passing a slimmed-down version of health care reform.

One health care lobbyist said many of those interested in the legislation are now reviewing the various options with an eye on how it affects them.

“They are prepping to protect themselves and their interests,— the lobbyist said. But the lobbyist added that it will take a week to assess the fallout from the election.

“Emotions are running high, and people need to take a deep breath,— the lobbyist said.

Health care providers as well as a wide range of other business and ideological groups have invested considerable time and effort in the health care legislation as it has moved through Congress over the past year.

Drug companies, led by the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, had supported the legislation after reaching a deal with the White House to chip in $80 billion to defray Medicare drug costs.

The major hospital groups, which agreed to $150 billion in savings, had also signed off on the legislation, as had the senior citizens group AARP and the American Medical Association.

On the other hand, major business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have vigorously opposed the legislation and have spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns to try to scuttle the measure. The chamber also underwrote ads in Massachusetts supporting Brown, who pledged on the campaign trail to oppose the health care measure.

Other conservative groups have spearheaded media and grass-roots campaigns to try to sink the health care initiative.

One of those groups is Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, largely funded by former hospital magnate Richard Scott, which has spent about $1 million a month on advertising since March.

Scott said the election was a “wake-up call— for Democrats in Congress, who he warned should not try to use procedural maneuvers to ram the bill through.

“I think what they need to do is start all over,— he said.

Scott said he planned to continue his advertising campaign as lawmakers regrouped.

Neas acknowledged the difficulty that proponents have had in selling proposed changes in the health care system.

“I think the proponents have not been successful in conveying how much there is in the measure for every American,— he said. Neas also said the bill could be improved “in terms of costs and affordability.—

But not everyone is predicting a sea change now that the Democrats are one vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority. They still hold wide margins in both chambers, and the vast majority of legislation requires votes from both parties.

“It doesn’t really change much — yet,— Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said. “From a Democratic perspective, it wakes people up, that they can’t take any race for granted and that they have to change how they’re doing things.

“The message from this?— Elmendorf added. “For things to happen, they’re going to have to happen on a bipartisan basis.—