BOSTON - A panicky White House and Democratic allies scrambled yesterday for a plan to salvage their 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 worked frantically yesterday amid fears that Republican Scott Brown would 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 see the Senate-passed version as doing too little to help working families. Under the Senate bill, 94 percent of Americans would be covered, compared to 96 percent in the House version.
House plan raises taxes
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.
The House passed its version last year, and members assumed it would be reconciled with the Senate bill and then sent back to both chambers for final approval by the narrowest of margins.
A GOP win in Massachusetts Tuesday would be likely to 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 presumably would urge the Senate to make some changes later under a complex plan requiring 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 at all is better than the Senate bill.
Also, some moderate Democrats may abandon the health bill altogether if they see a Republican win Kennedy's seat in strongly Democratic Massachusetts.
GOP keen on blocking vote
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 such a failure would cripple their ability to tell voters in 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 yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity because Democrats have not conceded the race to Brown.
If Coakley wins, final passage of a House-Senate compromise is not guaranteed but seems likely.