After looking at the media’s reaction to last week’s special election in Massachusetts that sent Republican Scott Brown to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Democrats’ health care reform has a future as bleak as an uninsured cancer patient. The headline in the Philadelphia Metro last Thursday seemed to aptly summarize the situation: “How will Dems recover after losing majority?” As Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained, “The election in Massachusetts changes the math in the Senate. It’s easy math. It’s simple math.” Indeed, the math is so simple that I myself was able to subtract 41 from 59 and discern that the Democratic minority now only holds an 18-seat advantage in the Senate. The Republican revolution lives!
Sarcasm aside, the Democrats’ excuse for their capitulation is exceptionally weak. The “math” Reid is referring to is the filibuster, the Senate rule that allows for unlimited debate on a bill unless a supermajority of 60 Senators or more votes for cloture, which ends the debate. Before last week’s election, the Democratic caucus held 60 seats in the Senate, the exact number required to end a filibuster. The Democrats were able to pass a version of healthcare reform through the Senate last month by using their supermajority to break three Republican filibusters. Now that any compromise bill that must be passed in both the House and the Senate faces the prospect of an unbreakable filibuster, Reid has effectively abandoned this plan.
But the use of a filibuster to completely derail the majority party’s legislative agenda is not normal, not democratic, and most importantly, not enshrined in the Constitution. The filibuster exists entirely within the rules of the Senate, and could be eliminated by a simple majority. The Democrats had an opportunity to do this in 2005 when the Republican majority threatened to break a Democratic filibuster by declaring the filibuster unconstitutional, a plan that was dubbed the “nuclear option.” The Democrats now have a golden opportunity to not only enact truly universal healthcare, but to also get rid of an undemocratic rule.
If principle is not enough to persuade Democrats, perhaps political pressure is. With Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House, voters will not accept a slightly smaller majority this November as an excuse for failing to deliver on campaign promises, and they shouldn’t. The Democrats still hold the largest Senate majority any party has had since 1979. For comparison, Republicans under President Bush never held more than 55 seats, and yet were able to pass well over a trillion dollars worth of tax cuts, invade two countries and give the President the power to warrantlessly wiretap, torture and indefinitely detain any person he so pleased.
If Democrats, with their even larger majority, cannot reform the American healthcare system to ensure that anyone who needs medical attention receives it then frankly they do not deserve to wield political power. No American should die because of the cowardice of their leadership.