Having worked for the House Democratic leadership and senior Democratic senators, being a serious vote-counter with an occasional dose of Niccolo Machiavelli, I ask: What happens if the Republicans win the Senate in Massachusetts, and might it have the ironic result of reviving the public option and other progressive policies? Here is a scenario I advise senior Democrats to consider, if the Republicans win the Massachusetts Senate race:
1. Obviously, Democrats don’t have the 60 votes.
2. The president's first inclination will be to persuade Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). But I do not believe this can be achieved, which would require moving the Senate bill that she opposed even further to the right and toward the special interests, without losing more liberal members than the market can bear.
If we assume the hypothetical premise that Massachusetts goes Republican, the political and psychological damage to Democratic morale will itself lose a few votes regardless of the 60-vote issue. Even most Democrats can be surrendered-out, and I predict any Snowe scenario fails.
3. Which leaves reconciliation, the strategy of passing key progressive positions with a majority vote. This eliminates the need to turn the bill into an eBay auction with payoffs and surrenders to the handful of senators needed to get to 60. They are no longer needed. The giveaways are taken back. The surrenders are canceled. The Democrats will have the 51 votes for a far better and more popular bill.
The public option lives again. The Dorgan amendment survives, allowing import of safe lower-priced Canadian drugs that will save the budget $100 billion. The bill can make insurance price-fixing, price-gouging and collusion illegal after all! We can ban discrimination on pre-existing conditions in a way that bans price-gouging against those who get this insurance.
Various provisions can be passed through the regular bill limited to highly popular provisions. Other provisions can be passed through the reconciliation process by majority vote. The drug import and antitrust price-fixing provisions both have significant Republican support, and more than 60 votes in the Senate, no matter what vehicle pushes them through.
Using this Plan B, the bill becomes far better, far more progressive and far more popular than the pending bill.
Note: The option of delaying the seating of an elected senator to force through a House- Senate agreement is politically untenable and would be disastrous in the current context.
The president has lost popularity and is on the defensive. The bill itself is unpopular. The Democrats are on the defensive (made worse with the Dorgan shocker). A significant number of Democratic seats are in jeopardy. It would be a gift to Republicans to let them go to into the 2010 elections charging abusive tactics by a Democratic Congress, for an unpopular bill that endangers a number of House and Senate Democrats in the elections.
Conclusion: If we view this in the alternate universe of Massachusetts going Republican, reconciliation becomes a far more attractive legislative option. Especially if through the reconciliation process we can revive several highly popular provisions in election year, with a far better bill. My view is a distinct minority today, and I hope the Democrats keep the Massachusetts seat. But if we lose the 60th vote, the choice will be getting Snowe, reconciliation or losing the vote.
If Niccolo Machiavelli were here, he would want to turn a distressing debacle into a new opportunity. Many in this town should be aware: Watch what you ask for, you may get it.