Election Fallout

Party scrambling to keep its agenda intact

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 21, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Staggered by Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts, national Democrats yesterday struggled to figure out how to keep their agenda - and their congressional majorities - intact amid what they acknowledge is deep anger across the nation.

The excruciatingly crafted health care overhaul, a chief priority for President Obama, is now in grave danger. Climate change legislation, which already had a shaky future, will be even more difficult to pass once Brown is sworn in and Democrats no longer have the 60 votes needed to break GOP filibusters in the Senate. Even such workaday bills as agency appropriations will be a bigger headache for Democrats, who now must win over at least one Republican to pass anything but the least controversial items.

And underlying the new legislative reality is a political threat even more disconcerting to the majority Democrats: If the party cannot even hang onto the seat once held by liberal stalwart Edward M. Kennedy, are they safe anywhere?

“If there’s anybody in this building that doesn’t tell you that they’re more worried about elections today, you should absolutely slap them,’’ said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

Democrats emerged from their weekly caucus luncheon - an event that took on the tone of a group therapy session yesterday - with no immediate plan of action, lawmakers said. But there was an overwhelming acknowledgment the Bay State race exposed a voter fury that could lead to any number of incumbents losing reelection bids this fall.

“People who don’t listen and try to learn from whatever messages were sent [Tuesday], then I’d say, shame on them,’’ said Senator Paul Kirk, the Democrat who filled Kennedy’s seat and provided the 60th vote for several key pieces of legislation, including health care.

“But I don’t think there’s anyone in that caucus that didn’t say, ‘This is a wake-up call,’ ’’ Kirk said. “No one is just going to say: ‘OK, Massachusetts voted for a Republican candidate. Better just be an aberration.’ No.’’

Senator Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, acknowledged that the Massachusetts race was “obviously, a big loss.’’ But he and other Democrats said they wanted to take some time to absorb the blow, identify the trouble zones for Democrats, and then figure out how to proceed. Overwhelmingly, Democrats said they were not prepared to drop the agenda they and Obama have been pushing.

Democrats should stay calm, Dodd advised. “Everybody’s a little hyperbolic about it right now,’’ he said. “We need to step back and take a breath.’’

A chastened White House acknowledged yesterday that it had misread the situation and grappled with how to adjust to the dramatic change of events. But like Capitol Hill Democrats, Obama and his spokesman said it was not the agenda that was tuning off voters, but the inability of Democrats to sell it.

Dealing with a barrage of crises may have complicated that effort, the president suggested. “I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,’’ Obama said in an interview with ABC released yesterday, the anniversary of his inauguration.

“That, I do think, is a mistake of mine,’’ Obama said. “I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we’re making a good rational decision here, then people will get it.’’

Obama is scheduled to meet with House Republicans later this month, said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary.

Republicans, meanwhile, said the Brown election signaled a thumbs-down on the health care overhaul and warned their Democratic colleagues to abandon Obama’s agenda.

Americans “want the Congress to go in a different direction,’’ said Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, joining his GOP colleagues in nationalizing the significance of the election. Democrats “chose to go left,’’ he said, and lost a long-held seat.

The new math on Capitol Hill somewhat diminishes the individual power of Democratic and independent senators, each of whom previously could claim to be the 60th vote needed to pass legislation and could demand sweeteners to do so. The weakened Democratic majority also elevates the role of moderate Republicans from New England, who had once been key players in crafting legislative compromises.

Senators Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, both Republicans of Maine, said they hoped Brown’s election would force a new era of cooperation in what is now a bitterly partisan Senate.

The vote on health care “shouldn’t have been about crafting a policy to get to 60 votes. It should have been about crafting the best policy,’’ said Snowe, the only Republican to vote for the bill in committee. She voted against it on the Senate floor.

Democrats and Republicans, however, continued to blame each other for partisan chasm. Senator Jon Cornyn of Texas complained that GOP and independent voters felt “shut out of the process,’’ and Republican lawmakers have long insisted that their views are not taken into account.

Democrats counter that the GOP is determined to stop any Democratic-led legislation, noting nearly every major bill passed with little or no GOP support.

“There are a series of streets between the White House and Capitol Hill. Almost all of them are in both directions,’’ Gibbs said. “It takes two willing partners to be able to do this.’’