Transcript: Health On The Hill – What The Massachusetts Senate Race Could Mean For Health Reform

The outcome of the Massachusetts Senate race could play a pivotal role in efforts by President Obama and congressional Democrats to pass a health care overhaul bill this year. A loss by Democrat Martha Coakley would mean that Democrats lose their 60-vote majority to stop a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Talks between the White House and congressional Democrats are expected to intensify this week as lawmakers push to get a health care deal through both chambers.

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JACKIE JUDD: Good day. I am Jackie Judd with Health on the Hill. The year-long drive by Democrats on Capitol Hill to overhaul the nation’s health care system may be in jeopardy because of the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Here to discuss what’s ahead, Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News and Drew Armstrong of Congressional Quarterly, welcome to you both. The voting is taking place as we speak. If Scott Brown, the Republican, wins, Martha Coakley the Democrat loses. The Democrats in the Senate lose their filibuster proof majority. So, what are the options being kicked around to get health care through Congress should a Brown victory occur?

MARY AGNES CAREY: One option, which doesn’t seem like it would be acceptable to too many House Democrats, is for the House to quickly act on the Bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve. To move that quickly, and then fix things down the road, perhaps through a Budget Reconciliation Bill.

We talked about this last week, there were a lot of intense negotiations between President Obama and the Democratic leadership in both chambers, those negotiations could certainly step up by quite a bit with the hope that you could get an agreement that could move through the House and then move through the Senate. The time would be of the essence if Scott Brown wins.

JACKIE JUDD: Do you think it would fly?

DREW ARMSTRONG: Well, I think we are going to see some very hard negotiating positions until, I don’t know, around 11 o’clock tonight when all the results are in, and the talk about what people are willing to accept today and what people are willing to accept tomorrow could be very, very different. Three days ago, Democrats that we talked to were saying no, there is no Plan B. It is this or nothing.

Well, now obviously there is a Plan B of some sort or another. I mean, they know that they need to get the Health Bill done and get it done quickly. There are a couple of things to keep in mind with the Brown/Coakley election, one, it is going to take a few days for this election to get certified, for all the results to come in.

I mean, it is not that this is going to happen tonight and Brown is going to take this seat on Wednesday morning or anything like that. There is probably a week to a week and a half window, assuming the election isn’t close, assuming there are no legal challenges.

I mean, I am sure Democrats have a very, very fond memory now of what happened with Al Franken and will be keeping that in mind. That took six months to finish up and a nice window for them to have in terms of finishing a health care reform, so I think even though this one pivotal event does happen and I still think there is a lot more mushiness in exactly what the final play out on all of this is.

JACKIE JUDD: Mary Agnes suggested that there are a lot of differences of course between what the House passed and what the Senate passed. Another difference is a deal that President Obama cut with Labor last week to address Labor’s concerns regarding taxation of high-end health care plans. The deal they cut was to raise the threshold a bit and to push out the date it would be enacted. This is one of many things that would be in jeopardy if this first scenario we were talking about should occur, right?

MARY AGNES CAREY: It would be. I do wonder if it could be resolved in a Budget Reconciliation Bill. Budget Reconciliation deals with the revenue issues. We have other issues on taxes, for example, in the Bill. If those were resolved, Budget Reconciliation takes a 51 vote margin in the Senate, not 60, so if they decided to go that route and it is completely unclear what they are going to do, that I think could be part of that budget reconciliation package because it deals with the revenue measures.

JACKIE JUDD: How scary does what is happening in Massachusetts today become for some Senate Democrats who were very hard to get to the table in the beginning? The Ben Nelsons of the world, does this scare them? Could the Democrats possibly lose some of their members, even let’s say if Coakley does win?

DREW ARMSTRONG: I do not think so. I think we are in a situation where Democrats know, the one message that this election has certainly gotten across is that they know that they are in deep trouble no matter what and they have already voted for this Bill once. I mean, at this point switching looks just as bad as if you voted for it again.

People already know that you voted for the Senate Health Care Bill. Getting scared now and saying oh, not only did I not respect the wishes of the people, but I also am not capable of sticking to my principles I think becomes an even more difficult situation to get yourself in politically if you decide that you are going to run scared from this Bill after voting for it the first time.

JACKIE JUDD: There is a lot of debate about whether the election in Massachusetts is a referendum on health care reform, do you think it is?

MARY AGNES CAREY: I think it absolutely is. I mean, I think that people are looking at that vote. It is a pivotal vote. If you do not like the Health Reform Bill, electing Scott Brown is your way to stop it.

JACKIE JUDD: But even though Massachusetts already passed its own Health Reform Bill a couple of years ago.

MARY AGNES CAREY: I think it is more of looking at ways for opponents to block this Bill and it has been viewed that way. People are talking about it that way and I think we are talking here about Senate Democrats, a lot of Democrats in both chambers are viewing this as a referendum on the Health Care Bill, but yet as Drew was talking about, many of them are on record for voting for it, they may very well stay in that category, but I think it is going to make them nervous.

I mean, let’s not forget about what happened in November. You had two gubernatorial races where Republicans won in typically Democratic states, and I think that made folks nervous. They have kind of calmed down from that and now here that stirs all that up again.

JACKIE JUDD: And a final question to you, Drew, if Scott Brown wins and the divide in the Senate becomes 59/41, is there any Republican who the Democrats could look at and say we can get his or her vote, Olympia Snowe, for example?

DREW ARMSTRONG: I am sure some people are going to be asking that question but I think in reality no. Olympia Snowe voted for the Bill in the Finance Committee that while it is remarkably like the Senate Bill currently, that was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then and I think the Republicans are just lock step in opposing these things.

They know exactly where the political winds are blowing because not only are the Democrats looking at Massachusetts with some fear; the Republicans are looking at it with a great degree of hope. They are saying if we can win in Massachusetts, where can’t we win?

And I think voting into the Health Care Bill is going to be one of the ways that they are going to start trying to do that. I really do not think that there is any chance you are going to be seeing a Republican switch sides, completely change their talking points, their mind, everything they have been promising the voters for the last six or eight months, even Olympia Snowe, and vote for this thing just to save Democrats, to save essentially the Democratic presidency and control of Congress, I just do not think that is going to happen.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, thank you both so much. It is a really fascinating, unexpected time in this year-long debate. We will be checking back with you both. Thank you. And thank you for watching. I’m Jackie Judd.

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