KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Mass. Senate Election Could Play Role In Health Reform Endgame

The Associated Press: "Like a roller-coaster ride on its last twisting turns, President Barack Obama's campaign to remake health care is barreling into final days of breathless suspense and headlong momentum." President Obama and other Democrats are focusing this weekend on "an unpredictable Senate race in Massachusetts, while senior White House and congressional staffers"  hurry to complete work on the health bill's "cost and coverage options." Though negotiators say progress has been made in moving closer to final agreements, details have not been shared with the Democratic rank-and-file. Meanwhile, the Bay State's election is adding pressure because a Republican win there would "deprive Democrats of the 60-vote majority" necessary to pass the health bill in the Senate. If this scenario plays out, "Obama and Democratic congressional leaders would have a political window of perhaps days only to try to ram the bill through -- at considerable risk of incurring public wrath." And not all Democrats are confident about the election's outcome. "'If Scott Brown wins, it'll kill the health bill,' said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, reflecting that the Republican would provide opponents of the health care bill a decisive 41st vote to uphold a filibuster and block passage in the Senate. Frank predicted Coakley would ultimately prevail and thus preserve the essential 60-vote Senate majority. Obama hurriedly scheduled a weekend campaign trip to the state" (Espo and Alonso-Zaldivar, 1/17.)

ABC News: If Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley loses the election for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, "Democrats want to be in a position to pass a bill through the Senate before Brown is sworn in." Massachusetts law requires that the secretary of state "wait 'at least' 10 days before certifying the results, to give time for absentee and military ballots to be received and counted. That means Brown could be sworn in as early as January 29." This leaves Democrats very little time to hash out a compromise -- a task made more difficult by time requirements. ABC reports on why time becomes a factor: "After a final health care deal is struck ... it goes to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for a cost estimate, a process expected to take 10 days. After that, it will take at least seven days to pass the bill in the House and the Senate." For Dems to continue with their current health overhaul plan, either the Massachusetts election certification will need to be delayed or the "CBO works much faster than expected." The possible contingency plans being discussed if Brown does win include having "the House pass the Senate bill, so the Senate doesn't have to vote any more on the matter" or returning to the idea of relying on the rules of reconciliation -- which only require 50 votes for Senate passage -- to move the measure to passage (Tapper and Karl, 1/16).

Fox News: "President Obama on Sunday used a church pulpit at a Martin Luther King Day service to say the massive health bill would be a victory for "decency." Later in the day, the President was heading to Massachusetts to campaign for Tuesday's election. "Democrats eyeing the possibility of losing the 60th seat needed to stop a Republican filibuster of the bill have suggested the Senate may try to pass a deal with only 51 votes rather than 60. 'Reconciliation is an option,' Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told Bloomberg Television."  But other liberal Democrats said such a plan "will kill the deal because it will limit policy changes that aren't incidental to the deficit cutting" (Shively, 1/17).

The Hill, reporting on comments by the top Senate Republican during a Sunday talk show: "The healthcare reform bill poised to pass Congress in the coming weeks will haunt Democrats throughout the next two election cycles -- and the tight Massachusetts Senate race to be decided Tuesday is only a preview, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) contended Sunday. "'Massachusetts is going to be a very, very close race regardless of who wins," McConnell said on Fox News Sunday. "'... We have here in effect a referendum on this national healthcare bill'" (Young, 1/17).

Modern Healthcare: "McConnell also attacked a deal negotiated out between organized labor groups, the White House and House and Senate leaders that exempts them from having their higher-end health plans taxed. 'The whole proposal is rife with special deals,' he said, speaking of the overall bill'" (DoBias, 1/17).

In other weekend headlines, CongressDaily reports on PhRMA's reaction to the "recent move to shrink market protections for biologic drugmakers" in the ongoing health reform negotiations, as well as The Washington Post's stories about about the so-called "Safeway" wellness provision and the partisan backlash surrounding Nebraska's Medicaid provision included in the Senate-passed measure.

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