First humiliation, now whither US health care reform?

Reading all the commentary that has come out in the last 48 hours you would think the Massachusetts senatorial election was a referendum on health care reform. That’s going too far. Sure, the victory on Tuesday of Republican challenger Scott Brown in the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy has ended the Democrats’ super-majority in the Senate, making the passage of Democratic agenda much more difficult.

But there were many other factors at play. For one thing, Martha Coakley was a weak Democratic candidate in a state, that while it stereotyped as “Blue” has a long history of voting for the other side to avoid one-party rule (and has elected numerous  Republican governors.) At this time, the governor is a Democrat, the state legislature is controlled by Democrats, and Democrats hold Congress and the White House.

Second, Massachusetts already has the kind of government-subsidized health insurance system that extends coverage to almost all people that is being debated in Washington.  Brown himself voted for the state program (which was signed into law by then Republican governor Mitt Romney, who must be licking his chops this week in anticipation of another presidential run in 2012) but says he doesn’t want to subsidize it for other states. Fair enough, but it doesn’t imply a national rejection of a national scheme.

Third, unemployment is at 10% and the economy is limping while bankers, recently bailed out by taxpayers, get big bonuses. People are angry and they are punishing the party in power. This would be the case health care bill or not.

Those caveats aside, the race is being interpreted in Washington as a rejection of the health care legislation. And Democrats seem undecided about what to do about it.

The simplest thing to do would seem to be for the House to pass the health care reform bill that has already passed the Senate — even though it is not as liberal as many House Democrats would want. The argument for this is that nothing more liberal can make it through the Senate now regardless. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said today that there simply aren’t sufficient votes in the House  to do that. Ezra Klein goes over the Democrats’ options.

President Obama has suggested a more stripped down approach — taking a few essential aspects of the legislation — such as expanding coverage, and imposing rules on insurance companies that will prevent them from denying insurance to the sick — and just passing those. He said yesterday, “I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up and we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance to their families.”

Then today the White House indicated that it is just itching to move past the health care debate to focus on economic populism ahead of the November mid-term elections (and you thought his approach of leaving the whole mess to Congress was surprisingly hands-off before…)  “As the majority leader and speaker continue to look to the best way forward, the president has a very full plate,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. “There’s plenty of work for the president to do in the meantime.”

They’d rather talk about enter Obama’s  proposed crackdown on the big banks. In one sense, though, Obama’s timing could not be worse — just as he was announcing his plan to regulate the banks, they and other corporations just got the green light from the US Supreme Court to pile their money into the defeat of candidates they don’t like. As my friend Ben Smith points out, tough week.