As US President Barack Obama and his party are left reeling on Wednesday from the party’s stinging loss in the Massachusetts Senate election, the question hot on the lips of voters and political analysts alike is: what next for healthcare reform?
According to President Barack Obama, the show must go on; in a press conference, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president was determined to pass broad healthcare reform this year. Still, how exactly the president and Congressional Democrats will achieve that goal remains very much up in the air.
House and Senate Democratic leaders have been working to iron out differences in their respective versions of the reforms in order to hand a final bill to President Obama for signature. But after Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the traditional Democratic bastion of Massachusetts robbed the Democrats of the 60th Senate vote they need to send the bill quickly to Obama’s desk, the party finds itself faced with narrowing options.
Obama warns Democrats against circumventory tactics
Obama himself on Wednesday seemed to rule out potential scenarios where Congressional Democrats could have tried to push the reform through without Brown. “Here's one thing I know and I just want to make sure that this is off the table: The Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated,” Obama said pointedly in an interview on ABC.
Aside from rushing a Senate vote before Brown joined Congressional ranks, another possibility party leaders had been mulling was to send the Senate bill directly to the House without changing it – therefore eliminating the need for another Senate healthcare vote. That way, once the House approved it, the bill could be sent immediately to Obama for signature.
But many House Democrats expressed unease with the idea, fearing repercussions if voters were left with the impression of politicians storming ahead with a reform that the people don’t like.
Obama, in his TV interview, seemed to back away from either of these options. "The people of Massachusetts spoke. (Brown)’s got to be part of that process,” the president said.
In an interview with France24.com, Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution (a non-profit public policy institute), noted the danger of rushing through healthcare reform at this point. “It would be very risky to attempt to push things through as if the Massachusetts vote had never taken place. Voters are angry and politicians must take their views into account.”
Drop it, plough ahead, or scale it back?
The election of Brown, who campaigned on a promise to fight the healthcare measure as US senator, was widely seen as a vote against an increasingly unpopular reform. Top Republicans are indeed insisting that Brown’s victory proves the reform should be dropped.
"(Voters) don't want the government taking over healthcare. They made that abundantly clear," Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.
But Democratic Congressional leaders are intent on presenting a determined front. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi maintained that the party would “move forward” on healthcare, while Senate Majority leader Harry Reid affirmed, “In the coming year, we will ensure all Americans can access affordable health care.”
With Congressional elections less than a year away, many Democrats fear the failure to produce a final healthcare bill after six months of work would be even more politically damaging than passing an unpopular or compromised bill.
A pragmatic approach floated in top Democratic circles would consist of pushing through specific elements of healthcare reform that could be passed in the new Senate – even without the Democratic supermajority of 60. "We do believe there are some very good things in the bill that we can get passed," House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday, as a reform that was until yesterday on track to become a historic Democratic victory hung precariously in the balance.