Friday, January 15, 2010

The power of one

For months, we’ve been hearing about the extraordinary measures taken by the Senate leadership to appease centrist Democrats like Ben Nelson (D–Nebraska) and the Independent from Connecticut. The public option was dropped, stringent restrictions on abortion were accepted and Medicare expansion was swept away, all in the name of ensuring that a health care reform bill reached the President’s desk.

As it turns out, the Democrats should have been paying a bit more attention to the tedious process of winning elections. Because, in what could be the greatest of ironies, the special election to replace Ted Kennedy – who famously said that health care reform was the cause of his life - suddenly has the potential to flush the entire bill into the sewer of unrealized good intentions.

Martha Coakley is the Attorney General of Massachusetts, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1. Yet, despite the advantages of demographics, name recognition and the desire to honor the foremost advocate of health care reform, the Bay State is poised to deliver the death blow to health care reform. Recent polls suggest that Coakley, who until recently declined to run an aggressive campaign, is now in danger of losing the race to (formerly) little known state senator, Scott Brown. Brown, the Republican, has been running like it means something and is now pulling in hordes of cash in his bid to upset the Democrat. A recent poll by the respected pollster Nate Silver had the race as a dead heat.

If Coakley manages to lose a race that most pundits assumed was hers, the Senate tradition of the filibuster will ensure that the health care bill, at least in its current iteration, will never even have a vote, let alone reach the President’s desk. Scott Brown, should he prevail, will have all the power. Elections, as they say, have consequences.

Elections have other consequences, such as presidents appointing people to serve who share a similar worldview. President Obama did just that when he nominated Craig Becker to serve as a member of the National Labor Relations Board. Becker, a controversial nominee due to his views on the employer’s role in organizing campaigns, was approved by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. However, Senator John McCain has placed a hold on his nomination, thereby denying Becker an up or down vote before the full Senate. The hold is especially troublesome, given the Board’s current two-member panel and the challenges to that panel’s authority.

McCain may not like Becker, and that’s his right, but his opposition threatens to undermine one of the most important agencies in the labor and employment field. The Senator should remember that his Democratic colleagues allowed such votes for Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, two men who have far more power to shape the landscape than does Mr. Becker.

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