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Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The power of 41

Politics | Democratic leaders are watching their healthcare overhaul options dwindle

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

WASHINGTON-Nearly 48 hours after the shot heard around Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rhetorically asked a room of Capitol Hill reporters: "Where do we go from here?"

Less than a month ago even a political pundit with Nostradamus' genes would have had difficulty predicting that one of the Democrats' top healthcare maestros would have uttered that question. But that was before Scott Brown came to town.

As Pelosi began answering her own query-pitching that the new congressional calculus had "not diminished the need for healthcare"-an antique grandfather clock interrupted her with its chimes.

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"Do we have a new clock?" Pelosi asked.

Yes, Madame Speaker, a new healthcare clock is ticking, and those chimes you are hearing may have been signaling the 11th hour for the Democrats' yearlong push for an overhaul.

With 80 percent of Brown's supporters claiming opposition to the Democrats' healthcare plans, Democratic lawmakers walked around the U.S. Capitol hallways last week like they had been punched in the gut. It is a stunning reversal just a month after those same lawmakers walked out of the Senate chamber grinning about the Christmas Eve passage of the Senate's $1 trillion overhaul package.

"Not enough people know quite what to do next," admitted Sen. Max Baucus, one of the chief architects of the healthcare bill as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. His 2009 pronouncement that healthcare reform was "inevitable" seemed forgotten.

After ignoring heated town halls last August, dismissing polls showing more than half of Americans oppose the current bills, and blaming last November's Republican victories in New Jersey and Virginia on state issues, congressional Democrats seemed finally to get the message. The people spoke in the only language lawmakers can hear: congressional job security. So in the new day of a 59-41 Senate, once-popular words like public option and insurance mandates have suddenly disappeared from the Democrats' vocabulary.

But make no mistake: They have walked too far down the healthcare plank to scurry back to the ship. Junking a year's worth of legislative work and not declaring at least some sort of victory in healthcare would demoralize liberal voters and could cost Democrats in November's midterm election as much as passing the bigger government, higher taxes bills currently on the table.

But what is the legislative endgame for healthcare? So far, liberals' hard healthcare sells of the past few weeks have faced resistance from their own party. Hours after the Massachusetts vote, moderate Senate Democrats quickly issued statements that they would not support any rapid healthcare action before Brown was seated. Days later, House Democrats of all stripes said they would not support bypassing another Senate vote by strong-arming the Senate bill through the House without any amendments.

Efforts are now underway for option three: using a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation that would allow the bill to pass on a simple 51-vote majority rather than the usual 60 votes. More closed-door meetings are being used to tweak the Senate bill and attract more House support: stripping the Senate's special deals for certain states, adding further cuts to Medicare, inserting more tax hikes, and expanding the federal subsidies to qualify more middle-class families.

But already Democratic infighting has occurred: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., vowed to "fight against any attempts to push through changes" using tactics that would block a filibuster option by opponents. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., also came out against reconciliation, as did Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Lincoln and Bayh both face tough reelection battles in November, and Nelson has faced national ridicule for the special provisions for his home state that he had inserted into the Senate's overhaul bill.

The winners in all this turmoil: the nation's voters, who got a reminder in Massachusetts, home of the original (Boston) Tea Party movement, that what the voters think really does matter.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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