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Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010, 9:23 am

Weekly Pulse: What Does GOP Win in Mass. Mean for Healthcare Reform?

By Lindsay Beyerstein
By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Last night, Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill Teddy Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts. Coakley's loss puts health care reform in jeopardy.

With Coakley's defeat, the Democrats lose their filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. However, as Paul Waldman explains in The American Prospect, Coakley's loss is not the end for health care reform.

Remember, the Senate already passed its health care reform bill in December. Now, the House has to pass its version of the bill. The original plan was for House and Senate leaders to blend the two bills together in conference to create a final piece of legislation (AKA a conference report) that both houses would vote on. Once the Democrats are down to 59 votes, the Republicans can filibuster the conference report and kill health care reform.

But if the House passes the same bill the Senate just passed, there's no need to reconcile the two bills. This so-called "ping pong" approach may be the best way to salvage health care reform. Some of the flaws in the Senate bill could still be fixed later through budget reconciliation. It would be an uphill battle, but nothing compared to starting health care reform from scratch.

The second option would be to get the bill done before Scott Brown is sworn in. According to Waldman, there could be a vote within 10 days. The House and Senate have already drafted some compromise legislation, which Waldman thinks is superior to the straight Senate bill. If that language were sent to the Congressional Budget Office immediately, the Senate could vote before Brown is sworn in.

Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in a statement last night that Brown won't be sworn in until the election results are certified, a process that could take two weeks. Historically, the winners of special Senate elections have taken over from their interim predecessors within a couple of days. If the Republicans were in this position, they'd use every procedural means at their disposal to drag out the process. The question is whether the Democrats have the fortitude to make the system work for them.

Remember how the Republicans did everything in their power to hold up the Senate health care vote, including forcing the clerk to read the 767-page bill aloud? They were trying to delay the vote until after the Massachusetts special election. If it's okay for the GOP to stall, the Democrats should be allowed to drag their feet on swearing in Brown.

Also, remember how the Republicans fought to keep Al Franken from being seated after he defeated Norm Coleman? For his part, Franken says he's determined to pass health care reform one way or another, according to Rachel Slajda of Talking Points Memo.

Incongruously, some Democrats are arguing that rushing to a vote would be a violation of some vague democratic principle. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) wasted no time in proclaiming that there should be no vote before Brown was sworn in. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), of all people, averred last night that the Democrats should respect the democratic process and start acting like they have 59 votes while they still have 60.

All this talk of "respecting the process" is hand waving disguised as civics. According to the process, Scott Brown isn't the senator from Massachusetts yet. According to the process, you have the votes until you don't.

Talk about moving the goalposts. It's bad enough that we need 60 votes to pass a bill on any given day. Now, they'd have us believe that we also need 60 votes next week. Webb and Frank are arguing that Brown's victory obliges Democrats to behave as if Brown were already the Senator from Massachusetts. Of course, if Webb won't play ball, it's a moot point. The whole fast-track strategy is predicated on 60 votes. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly thinks that Webb effectively took the fast-track option off the table with his strongly worded statement.

Katrina vanden Huevel of The Nation argues that this historic upset should be a wake up call to President Barack Obama to embrace populism with renewed fervor. I would add that Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change. There is no better way to fulfill a promise of change than to reshape the nation's health care system and provide insurance for millions of Americans.

Ping pong, anyone?

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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