BOSTON – 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 with 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.”
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 should 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.