This week's Republican upset in the Massachusetts Senate race cost Democrats their filibuster-proof majority and dealt a powerful blow to the party's hopes for health care reform. This afternoon I asked West Broward Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz whether it's triggered any panic in the House Democratic caucus.
"I would not describe it as 'panic,'" she said. "I'd describe it as 'focus.' We're trying to hammer out the most significant reform that can pass. A bill that's simple enough for people to understand and which dramatically increases coverage and brings down cost."
The congresswoman has more at stake personally than most of her fellow members. We'll get to that after the jump.
If a Democrat in Massachusetts can lose a Senate seat that belonged to Edward Kennedy, then it means that no Democrat is safe -- not even Wasserman Schultz, who regularly wins her seat in the House by landslides. And it's not just for the power that comes from elected office. Following her terrifying encounter with breast cancer last year, Wasserman Schultz needs to count on the excellent health-care plan she gets as a member of Congress.
"If I lost this job tomorrow, I'd be uninsurable," she says, referring to the history of cancer that would make her a risk to insurers and that underscores for her the need for reform. "A preexisting health condition should not be an obstacle to being insured."
But as badly as she wants that reform, Wasserman Schultz ruled out one possibility favored by the nation's most aggressive progressives: for the House to vote for the approval of the existing Senate version of health care reform. "There's no way that's going to happen," Wasserman Schultz says. It's not just the political difficulty that it would bring for House Democrats; it's the way the Senate bill taxes health care benefits.
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In 2008, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chose Wasserman Schultz for the powerful-but-still-unenviable task of leading the party's retention efforts in the 2010 election. I asked her what she and her fellow Democrats learned from their crushing defeat in New England.
"We have been very clear -- long before Tuesday's election -- that we were facing a headwind," says Wasserman Schultz, pointing out that there are only two instances in the past century when the sitting president's party didn't lose seats in the next election cycle. "Our members have been in full-court-press mode."
She continued: "What happened on Tuesday [in Massachusetts] gave us an opportunity, like a visit from the ghost of Christmas Future -- show us what might be. And like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can go back and do things over, so we can prevent those sorts of things from happening."
Wasserman Schultz recently learned she'll have an opponent in 2010: Stephen Dworkowitz from Hallandale Beach, who's planning to abandon his Democratic affiliation to run as a Republican.