A panicky White House and Democratic allies scrambled Sunday for a plan to salvage their hard-fought health care package in case a Republican wins Tuesday's Senate race in Massachusetts, which would enable the GOP to block further Senate action.
The likeliest scenario would require persuading House Democrats to accept a bill the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several parts.
Aides consulted Sunday amid fears that Republican Scott Brown will defeat Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the late Edward M. Kennedy's seat. A Brown win would give the GOP 41 Senate votes, enough to filibuster and block final passage of the House-Senate compromise on health care now being crafted.
House Democrats, especially liberals, viewed those compromises as vital because they view the Senate-passed version as doing too little to help working families. Under the Senate-passed bill, 94 percent of Americans would be covered, compared to 96 percent in the version passed last year by the House.
The House plan would increase taxes on millionaires while the Senate plan would tax so-called Cadillac, high-cost health insurance plans enjoyed by many corporate executives as well as some union members.
When the House passed its version, members assumed it would be reconciled with the Senate bill and then sent back to both chambers for final approval, even if by the narrowest of margins.
A GOP win in Massachusetts on Tuesday would likely kill that plan, because Republicans could block Senate action on the reconciled bill.
The newly discussed fallback would require House Democrats to swallow hard and approve the Senate-passed bill without changes. President Barack Obama could sign it into law without another Senate vote needed.
House leaders would insist that the Senate make some changes later under a complex plan called "budget reconciliation." It requires only a simple majority, but it's unclear whether that could happen.
The plan is highly problematic. House liberals already are bristling over changes the Senate forced upon them earlier, and some may conclude that no bill is better than the Senate bill. Meanwhile, some moderate Democrats may abandon the health bill altogether after seeing a Republican win Kennedy's seat in strongly Democratic Massachusetts.
Republican activists openly scoffed at the notion of Democrats passing the highly contentious health package after a GOP takeover of Kennedy's Senate seat. But some Democrats said failure to pass a health bill will cripple their ability to tell voters this November that they accomplished anything with their control of the House, Senate and White House.
"The simplest way is the House route," a White House aide said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity because Democrats have not conceded the race to Brown.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to discuss the option, telling reporters that the administration expects Coakley to win.
If she does win, final passage of a House-Senate compromise on overhauling health care is not guaranteed but seems likely.
But even as Obama campaigned for Coakley in Boston Sunday, top aides furiously weighed options if she loses. They include:
- Acting before Brown is sworn in. Congressional and White House negotiators could try to reconcile the House and Senate bills quickly and pass the new version before Brown takes office. A firestorm of criticism would follow, but some Democrats say it would be better than having no bill.
- Seeking a Republican to cast the crucial 60th Senate vote. Some Democrats hope Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, might do this, but others seriously doubt it.
- Start over and pass a new, scaled back health bill using budget reconciliation, which requires a simple majority of 51 Senate votes. Several Senate aides said this was unlikely.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly ruled out a House vote on the Senate's version, and privately, officials have raised concerns about asking the rank and file to vote on legislation containing provisions that might prove problematic in the midterm elections.
As an example, the Senate-passed measure exempts self-insured health plans from many of the steps Democrats say are essential to curb insurance industry abuses. By one estimate, as many as 100 million individuals are covered under such plans.
It was unclear how the negotiators at the White House in recent days have resolved that issue.
Additionally, House Democrats in last week's talks pushed for additional subsidies for lower-income individuals and families who would be required to buy insurance under the measure that cleared the Senate. Several Democrats familiar with the talks said Obama had agreed with this point of view, and changes had been made accordingly.