Obama's Waterloo? Tough road for health reform if Brown wins. 

Don't get too excited yet, but this might just be the day the oceans start rising again.

If Republican Scott Brown wins today's special election in Massachusetts, President Obama's once-inevitable health insurance reform bill suddenly becomes not-so-inevitable. A Brown victory could also prove the death of any other big plans that Barack Obama had for his presidency and the large majorities he enjoys in Congress. (Think cap-and-trade.)

If Brown wins, depriving Democrats of a Senate supermajority, then there are two realistic ways for Democrats to deal with health care reform. One involves a painstaking process for actually passing something. The other is just a strategy for dealing with failure.

Option one: Pass the Senate bill "as-is" through the House, then fix everything in budget reconciliation

Democrats can avoid a second Senate vote on the health care bill if they do this. As Politico reports, they can even solve the problem of the tax on unions in the Senate bill. But liberal Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said this morning that such a scheme is unlikely. He has good reasons for believing so.

(1) Abortion funding. Last time, the House bill passed, 220-215, with language by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that absolutely prevents ObamaCare from subsidizing abortions -- something demanded by dozens of Democrats who ultimately voted for the bill. The Senate bill does not contain this language. This is one problem that cannot be fixed under the complex rules involved in budget reconciliation.

(2) Public Option The House bill passed with a government-run public option plan that many liberals demanded. The Senate bill contains no such provision. Depending on the details of whatever compromise is reached, this might be fix-able through reconciliation. It might not.

(3) House Math. Among the "yes" votes last time: Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who has since resigned from Congress. Two others, Stupak and Joseph Cao, R-La., are Catholic pro-lifers who have promised to vote no on the Senate bill. House Democratic leaders therefore start by facing a 217-217 vote. If Stupak really has the dozen supporters he claims, that brings the starting vote to 205-229, without considering the question of liberals who won't compromise on the public option. It's a tall order, even if we assume that Speaker Pelosi gave a free pass to several of her members last time and has a few "yes" votes hidden up her sleeve.

(4) Sheer panic. If you're a Democratic Congressman and you have any excuse to avoid it, do you really want to vote for the bill that just cost your party a Senate seat in bluest-of-blue Massachusetts? Consider this clip from a newspaper in upstate New York:

Also skeptical is Rep. Dan Maffei, D-Syracuse, whose district includes Wayne County. His press secretary, Abigail Gardner, said Friday Maffei is concerned with cuts to Medicare Advantage and opposes taxing high-priced health-care plans. His district has “a large union population,” she said, and union members have given up wage increases in exchange for those plans. Maffei is also concerned with taxes on certain business, such as for the medical-device industry, which would affect his district.

Maffei voted "yes" last time, but suddenly he's belly-aching about the medical device tax. How would you like to be House Democratic Whip James Clyburn right now, with so many hands to hold?

(5) Time. Senate staffers tell me that reconciliation could take a sizable chunk out of the calendar. The bid to rescue an unpopular health care bill will require new committee markups, votes, horse-trading, etc. It will create opportunities for embarrassing floor votes on Republican amendments that will be featured in campaign ads this fall. Democrats are already going to be punished for their health bill, but how much worse can they make it by dragging the process into late February with a gimmicky, nakedly partisan process?

Option two: Plan for failure, then blame the Republicans

This would involve a large game of make-believe. Hold a conference committee (or the unofficial equivalent thereof), create a compromise bill between the House and Senate that can at least pass the House, and then let Republicans (and perhaps a couple of Democrats) block it in the Senate with a filibuster. Blame the Republicans for obstructionism, and go to the voters with that message. This would be brilliant, except (1) the health reform measure is already extremely unpopular, and (2) liberal voters and donors are not so stupid as to excuse such impotence coming from a Democratic supermajority.

Option one may be the Democrats' only choice. Failure to pass anything could result in a double-punishment -- from voters on both the Left and the Right.

President Obama has left himself few options. Just think, though: If someone had told him one year ago, at his inauguration, that the battle over his health care bill and his entire presidency would be fought in Massachusetts, he probably would have been happy to hear it.

About The Author

David Freddoso

David Freddoso came to the Washington Examiner in June 2009, after serving for nearly two years as a Capitol Hill-based staff reporter for National Review Online. Before writing his New York Times bestselling book, The Case Against Barack Obama, he spent three years assisting Robert Novak, the legendary Washington... more
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