Like Julius Caesar returning from vanquishing the Gauls, Senator-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts strode with swollen chest down the marble-and-carpet halls of Congress yesterday, looking alternately thrilled and dizzied before diving into a series of meetings with the Republican leadership. But if it was all circus and celebration for Republicans in the wake of Mr Brown's upset win on Tuesday to fill the late Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, the mood among Democrats continued to darken as they faced what looked like a slow-motion collapse of all the policy priorities put in place since the coming to office of President Barack Obama a year ago, most immediately on reform of the heathcare system.
The reform bill had been on the brink, – after nine months of negotiating – of becoming law until this week, when the unexpected loss of the Massachusetts seat and the resulting elimination of the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, abruptly put it in jeopardy or – time will tell – killed it outright. The options for salvaging the legislation, or even something like it, seemed to narrow by the hour.
Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, emerged from hours of closed-door meetings with fellow Democrats to deliver the latest piece of bad news: the widely discussed possibility of having the House simply adopt the version of the bill already passed by the Senate and get it to the President's desk that way was a no-go. "I don't see the votes for it," she told a throng of reporters.
Elsewhere in the Capitol, another group of reporters was cornering the all-conquering Mr Brown, who until days ago was a little-known state senator from Massachusetts whose only other national claim to fame was a nude spread in Cosmopolitan in 1982. "It's a little overwhelming to see you all here," he said plaintively. "I understand it will calm down and we can all get to work."
Ready or not, Mr Brown, who will take his seat next week, is now an American idol not just to his Massachusetts supporters but to the ranks of conservatives and, increasingly, independents across the country, now in open revolt against Washington and in particular the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Mr Obama, who makes his State of the Union address next week, added to the confusion of his party by signalling in an ABC interview that he might propose starting from scratch on healthcare reform with a package able to attract bipartisan support. By necessity, though, it would be far less ambitious in scope and certainly would not meet the original goal of giving coverage to the millions of uninsured.
No sooner were his remarks out, however, than White House officials were backtracking. "Let's be clear: the President's preference," a spokesman said, "is to pass a bill that meets the principles he laid out months ago: more stability and security for those who have insurance, affordable coverage options for those who don't, and lower costs for families, businesses, and governments."
While a promise to oppose so-called "Obamacare" was at the heart of Mr Brown's campaign, he has sounded an interestingly conciliatory note since his victory. "If the President feels it's important, I am willing to look at it."
Before leaving Boston, he said he is not against a national effort at reform per se. "It's important for everyone to get some form of healthcare," he said. "So to offer a basic plan for everybody, I think, is important. It's just a question of whether we're going to raise taxes. I think we can do it better."Reuse content