03/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dems Inadvertently Suggest a Coakley Loss Would Strengthen Progressives on Health Care

If Democrats lose the Massachusetts Senate race, there are two possible ways to pass a final health care bill: 1) The House will simply pass the Senate bill unamended, thus circumventing another Senate vote entirely or 2) The Senate will be forced to use reconciliation to pass an amended conference report. If progressives in the House have enough vote to reject scenario 1, they would be in a good position to make the final bill stronger via scenario 2 - stronger than they even may be able to make the bill right now with a 60 vote Democratic majority in the Senate. Here's why:

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) is now saying that if Democrats lose the Massachusetts Senate election tomorrow, the party will consider using reconciliation to pass the health care bill. He insists that "even before the Massachusetts" race this was the case, but that's not what Democratic leaders had previously been saying.

For the party, this sudden re-legitimization of reconciliation makes obvious arithmetic sense - Democrats' Senate majority will be 59 and not the 60 votes needed to break a standard filibuster, and so if the House rejects simply passing the original Senate bill with zero conference amendments, Democrats would be forced to use reconciliation in the Senate to pass an amended final bill.

Setting aside the obvious hypocrisy of Democrats previously saying reconciliation was "off the table" in a 60-vote Senate when in fact it didn't need to be, this potential new scenario raises a question: Would a Democratic loss in Massachusetts actually strengthen progressives on the specific issue of health care? Hear me out.

If reconciliation is only "on the table" if Democrats lose the Massachusetts race, then that loss means Democrats would only need 51 votes - rather than 60 - to pass health care (or at least some of the big parts of it). Many progressive initiatives passed in the House health care bill (like the public option) were struck from the Senate bill in the name of obtaining 60 votes - that is, in the name of working in a non-reconciliation scenario. But if after the Massachusetts election, Democrats suddenly say they only need 51 Senate votes to pass big parts of the health care bill, doesn't it stand to reason that those progressive initiatives could now be put back in the Senate bill?

Put another way, a situation that only requires 51 votes suddenly makes the Ben Nelsons and Joe Liebermans far less able to singularly stop the progressive initiatives in the House bill. All of a sudden in a 59-seat Democratic majority Senate where reconciliation is necessary to pass health care, Democrats would be able to give up 8 anti-public-option Senate Democratic votes and still pass a health care bill. In short, there would be no reason to not push forward a public option and other progressive provisions previously stripped out of the Senate bill.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm rooting for Martha Coakley (D) to lose to Scott Brown (R) - not at all. But I am saying that Democrats' hypocrisy in saying that reconciliation is off the table in a 60-vote majority but on the table in a 59-vote majority means that progressives' hand may actually be strengthened in the latter situation.

Of course, that highlights the bigger problem of the hypocrisy. As I said before, there's no actual substantive reason why reconciliation is somehow "off the table" in one situation but "on the table" in another situation. That is, unless you believe Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) assertion that - despite Democratic leaders insistence to the contrary - the weakened, watered down, insurance-industry-shaped Senate bill, not the stronger House bill, is actually what the Democratic Party has secretly wanted all along.

If that's the case, I guess it made some sense - in a 60-vote situation where reconciliation could be off the table and a bill could still pass, it might have seemed like a smart (if devious) rationale for eliminating progressive priorities from the bill. But if it is a 59-vote situation in which Democrats must use reconciliation, suddenly that conservative/corporatist strategy may considerably strengthen the progressive movement's hand.

Again, I'm not rooting for Coakley to lose - but if her losing inadvertently creates the political dynamic that makes critical provisions like a public option a reality, then that's a huge silver lining to an otherwise bad situation.