Scott Brown’s upset victory over Martha Coakley in the recent Massachusetts special election came as a surprise to many who believed that the Bay State would forever vote for Democratic senators. The seat was previously held by the late Ted Kennedy, who served as senator from 1962 until his death on August 25 of last year.
Beyond Democratic candidate Martha Coakley’s lackluster and perhaps overconfident campaign, the Massachusetts race is symbolic for the nationwide popular apprehension about the proposed health insurance reforms being debated in Congress. Voters from across the state voiced their concerns “that the health care bill is being ramrodded through.” One of these same voters noted that his vote for Brown was “also a statement about what I don’t want.” A growing majority of Americans are opposed to health care reform because they feel they don’t have enough information about the changes the proposed bill would entail.
The implications of Brown’s Senate victory are disturbing for the nation as a whole. Exactly one year after Barack Obama was inaugurated with a mandate to strive for bipartisan cooperation, the senate has become more partisan than ever. Every vote on recent major bills has been split along party lines. Now that Democrats have lost the Senate supermajority and Republicans have a 41st vote in Scott Brown, it is almost certain that Republicans will filibuster any attempts at passing health insurance reform.
Senate Republicans have decided that their role in the government will be to veto any progressive legislation that is proposed. Given their current minority, this also means that no Republican projects will be passed either. It seems as though the power to prevent legislation from being passed has surpassed the need for effective reforms.
This stalemate is especially dangerous because it comes at a time when reforms are needed most. The current health care reform bill was found to reduce the ballooning budget deficit in future years. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes, “Given the state of American politics, the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government.”
What can be done to put the Senate back into a position to serve the people and not their own political goals? The filibuster, which by Senate rules allows any bill to be blocked, allows senators to put their own personal or partisan goals before those of the country and even their constituency. It is a technique that has been used by Democrats and Republicans for years, more often by the party in minority.
One option the Democrats have is to try to change the senate rules in order to ban the filibuster. This change, deemed the “nuclear option”, would prove difficult to effect given that 67 votes would be needed (there are currently only 59 democrats), and because the filibuster would still be fair game during the consideration of its elimination.
Were they to succeed in changing the rules, Democrats could move forward without republican obstruction, and try to pass some form of health insurance reform. Hypothetically, this tactic could solve two systemic conflicts that have plagued the Government for decades (major health care reform has been attempted twice without success). But Democrats are weary about eliminating the filibuster because, come November, it may be the most valuable tool they have.
The unpopularity of the current health insurance reform has slated Democrats to lose senate seats in November and the disparity between political agenda and public opinion has put health insurance reform in jeopardy. Last week, President Obama announced that he would hold a bipartisan health care summit on health care to be televised this month. “I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.”
Beth, Richard S., “Entrenchment” of Senate Procedure and the “Nuclear Option” for Change: Possible Proceedings and Their Implications. March 28, 2005. http://rules.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=SenateFloorProcedures