WASHINGTON - Democrats faced the unthinkable yesterday: losing their prized health care overhaul along with Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat, just as Kennedy's and President Barack Obama's goal seemed tantalizingly close to reality.
Obama and party leaders anxiously worked through fallback options - none good - for salvaging the president's top domestic initiative. At the same time, their eyes were on Massachusetts' special election.
Republican state Sen. Scott Brown's victory over Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley deprives Democrats of the 60-vote Senate majority needed to pass health care over the so-far-unanimous opposition of Republicans.
It forces Obama and Democratic leaders to consider a series of wrenching shortcuts involving escalating political risk.
Significant differences between the House and Senate health care bills would have to be settled quickly by presidential fiat and Democratic lawmakers would have to move in virtual lockstep to enact them.
That could be too much to ask from rank-and-file Democrats demoralized by losing a seat held in an almost unbroken line by a Kennedy since 1953. Efforts to woo a Republican convert could increase. But with polls showing voters souring on health care overhaul - and GOP leaders certain to intensify their attack - the president could be abandoned by lawmakers of his own party.
"I think we'd be the first to admit that we think there are a lot more benefits than people see and feel in these bills," Gibbs told reporters. "If that's a failing, I think that it's certainly a failing that I and others here at the White House take responsibility for, up to and including the president."
But how to get it done? "I don't want to speculate," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said yesterday. "We are not there on making that decision."
The goal remains to get an agreement to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills, Hoyer insisted, and pass a final bill through the normal legislative process.