Democratic leaders freaked out on Friday as they suddenly realized that nearly a year's worth of health-care negotiations could be tripped up by an improbably close Senate race in Massachusetts.
A poorly run campaign and a toxic political environment have imperiled what should have been a smooth path for Attorney General Martha Coakley to take over the seat long held by Ted Kennedy. But now, if Republican Scott Brown emerge victorious -- and, in the process, reduces the Senate Democratic Caucus from 60 to 59 -- the numbers will be stacked against health care's passage.
"It's not an encouraging thought," said one health care activist. "We're f---d," added another.
It all comes down to timing. The Massachusetts election is being held this Tuesday the 19th, after which there is a 10-day period to count overseas ballots, screen votes for potential fraud, and certify a winner. Should he win, Brown would be seated by January 29.
It will be incredibly difficult if not impossible for health care reform negotiators in Congress to get a bill passed before then. For starters, lawmakers have not yet settled on a final product. Once they do, they have to send the legislative language to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed that it usually takes the CBO 10-12 days to respond. Under an expedited timeframe, they could conceivably be made available in seven days.
But that's not the end of the process. Once a CBO score is released (and provided that it's a good score), lawmakers have a whole set of parliamentary loopholes through which they must jump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pledged that the bill will be placed online 72 hours in advance of the House voting on it. Once it is passed, it is sent to the Senate where Reid will have to file a motion to proceed (not time consuming), file a measure that blocks Senators from adding amendments (again, not time consuming) and then file for cloture. The cloture vote, requiring 60 Senators to pass, takes 30 hours. Once that's passed, then the Senate can have an up-or-down vote on the bill. All told, a Democratic aide says the chamber's process will take three to five days.
If the legislation were sent to the CBO today (possible but unlikely) it could pass the Senate in time. But this is increasingly regarded as a fantasy scenario, with strategists noting the various deadlines that congressional Democrats have already missed in the health care reform process.
In light of this, several emergency options are being bandied about. The first is that Pelosi will have to drop her 72-hour pledge (which was made just this week). "We could really use those three days," said one Democratic Senate aide.
The second option would be to simply force the House to accept the Senate's legislation (which has already been scored by the CBO). "I guess they could just swallow our bill but I think Pelosi's people would erupt in revolt," said the aide.
The third is to rework legislation around the demands of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), making her the 60th vote. But that would require even further tinkering than what's already taken place, along with the serious risks of alienating House progressives.
To be sure, a Coakley win would make this all moot. Moreover, there is some speculation that Democrats could extend the certification period beyond ten days, thus giving them a larger window to pass legislation. But, on Friday, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) dismissed such talk as conspiracy theory. A Democratic politician in the state, likewise, told the Huffington Post, that the 10-day period seemed pretty concrete.
Finally, if the election is decided by less than 0.5 percent, Coakley could petition for a recount -- which would effectively delay the seating of a new senator long enough, leaving interim Democratic Sen. Paul Kirk in place -- for Democrats to pass reform.
That Democrats have been forced to game out such scenarios is a testament not just to the value of the election, but the poor campaign that Coakley has run. It's also caused more than a bit of angina within the party.
"People in Massachusetts are freaking out," said one commonwealth pol. "Just as people nationally are freaking out."