The never-ending quest by the Democrats to create a universal national health care system was always reminiscent of Sisyphus condemned to roll the same boulder up a hill for eternity. But the thunderbolt-from-the-voters defeat of Martha Coakley in Massachusetts brings to mind another pitiful figure from Greek mythology. The Democrats' current plight is more like that of Tantalus, who was forced to stand in a shimmering pool of cool water up to his neck. But whenever Tantalus bent his head to slake his thirst, the water suddenly receded. In the political annals of tantalizing frustration, it is hard to top the Democrats losing their filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority on the cusp of final congressional action to combine the Senate and House health care bills.
Sure, the Democrats' success in choking off a GOP filibuster had its fortuitous elements -- from Al Franken's 312-vote victory after a protracted Minnesota recount to doddering 92-year-old Robert Byrd's ability to make it to the Senate floor. There was also a bit of political chicanery as the Massachusetts legislature changed state law at the last moment to allow the appointment of an interim senator (Democrat Paul Kirk) to fill Ted Kennedy's seat before the special election. Despite this checkered history, Scott Brown's come-from-nowhere Senate victory left Democrats baying at the moon and shouting at the stars, "We're cursed." Sometimes a stronger and earthier verb was used to bemoan the fate of health care reform.
With Democrats retreating into Henny-penny panic (Indiana's Sen. Evan Bayh told ABC News before the polls closed in the Brown-Coakley race, "If you lose Massachusetts and it's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up"), skittish moderates on Capitol Hill may conclude that passing health care reform will be injurious to the party's health in November. Congressional Democrats do not have much room to maneuver since the House version of the legislation only passed by a 220-to-215 margin with 39 Democrats abandoning Barack Obama and the House leadership on the vote.
The political problem with such a white flag strategy is simple -- every Democrat in the Senate and 219 in the House is already on record voting for health care reform. GOP attack ads will undoubtedly lambaste them for supporting "Obama's Big Government takeover of the health care system" whether the legislation ultimately passes or not. Imagine an endangered Democratic House member trying to argue in a debate, "After the Massachusetts vote, I decided that my Republican opponent was right and we were going down a dangerous radical road on health care." In politics, stubborn consistency is the safest path to re-election. Any Democrat who turns on health care reform now will be branded as a flip-flopper, peddling an updated version of John Kerry's fatal I-voted-for-it-before-I-voted-against-it line from the 2004 campaign.
Before the Massachusetts tea party re-enactment, Democrats had planned to continue their laborious efforts to meld the House and Senate legislation. As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, "The Senate has passed a bill, we passed a bill, and what we're working on is to reconcile the differences between those two bills."
It is now safe to call that split-the-difference strategy inoperative. Once Scott Brown takes Ted Kennedy's seat, the Democrats cannot bring health care legislation back to the floor of the Senate because it would presumably be blocked by a Republican filibuster. Of course, there is a chance that Senate Democrats could re-open negotiations with Maine moderate Republican Olympia Snowe. But given the frustrating track record of such efforts at token bipartisanship up to now, those across-the-aisle health care talks would probably still be going on when today's toddlers are choosing their Medicare prescription drug plans.
So, then, how can the Democrats still get health care reform to Obama's desk in the face of united Republican opposition on the Senate floor? There are three possible approaches -- foul, fair and somewhere in between.
Door No. 1
The repugnant option would be to deliberately stall Brown's swearing in until after the health care compromise clears the Senate floor with Democrat Kirk continuing to hold the Kennedy seat. This might as well be called the Banana Republic Strategy -- and this is not a reference to the clothing chain. Such blatant trickery would destroy the legislative legitimacy of the health care bill even if the cynical "Senator-elect Brown, I am sorry but your papers are not in order" gambit survived legal challenge. Even the least sophisticated voter could grasp that there was something wrong in preventing a new senator from voting on the most important domestic legislation of the Obama presidency.
This is a practical argument -- and not merely a high-minded, too-prissy-for-politics objection. Unlike, say, a tax cut that shows up in voters' take home pay within months, the major provisions in the health-care would not take full effect until 2013 (in the House bill) and 2014 (in the Senate version). What that means is that there would be two elections -- this November and Obama's 2012 reelection campaign -- for candidates to debate rescinding or revising the health-care bill. If the Republicans successfully could make a high-decibel issue out of the way it was passed as well as its provisions, health-care reform would have the life expectancy of a bunny rabbit in a lion's cage.
Door No. 2
In theory, Democrats could also use an arcane legislative mechanism known as reconciliation (which would not be subject to a filibuster) to get portions of the current health-care legislation through the Senate on a simple majority vote. This might be dubbed the Too Clever To Work strategy. Since technically only fiscal matters fall under the reconciliation loophole, the Senate parliamentarian charged with adjudicating the inevitable disputes would become the most important figure on Capitol Hill -- elected or non-elected. By taking this gimmicky route, the Democrats would be using a three-dimensional-chess legislative mechanism to pass a Rube Goldberg health care bill with predictable political recoil against all the mind-numbing complexity.
Door No. 3
That leaves the Democrats with the simplest and most elegant solution: the House passes the Senate bill word-for-word, completing the legislative process. Scott Brown and the Republicans would have no legitimate objections, since the prior Senate vote on health care is as valid as any other legislative action taken while Ted Kennedy or Paul Kirk held the Massachusetts seat. Surely, such a rubber-stamp strategy would likely do injury to the House's self-image as a co-equal legislative chamber. Anti-abortion House Democrats are already loudly objecting to the Senate bill's looser language on this perpetually divisive issue: Michigan's Bart Stupak told The New York Times, "House members will not vote for the Senate bill. There's no interest in that."
Perhaps there will be now. Democrats like Stupak may be morally troubled by the Senate abortion language, but do they really want to carry on their consciences the knowledge that that they almost single-handedly blocked a bill that would provide health coverage for 31 million Americans?
Since the Senate bill would phase in slowly, Stupak and Company could tell their constituents that they will work tirelessly for the next four years to change the abortion language. In similar fashion, reconciliation could be legitimately used in the Senate after the bill passes to go back and adjust the excise tax on high-cost health-care plans that has aroused the ire of labor unions.
Trying to salvage health-care reform from the electoral debacle in Massachusetts, the Democrats would do well to well to look for guidance to a conservative named Winston Churchill. It was Churchill who said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." And passing the Senate bill verbatim is the worst form of legislating except all the others that are available.