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What Now for the Democrats?

WASHINGTON - Not in decades has the election of a single new senator caused such an upheaval in the capital's political calculations.

It was not just the passage of a massive health care bill that was thrown into turmoil Wednesday as Democrats furiously debated whether to press forward or go back to the starting line. President Obama, a year to the day after taking office on a promise of change, issued a public mea culpa for having lost touch with the Americans who elected him. And there were questions about whether Democrats' hold on Congress might be shaken by a "wave" election in November that could sweep more Republicans into office.

All this from Scott Brown's surprise victory over Martha Coakley in the race for the Massachusetts Senate seat held for 47 years by liberal lion Edward Kennedy, who died in August. Brown will become the 41st Republican in the 100-seat Senate, breaking Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.

"Here's my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country: The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office," Obama told ABC News. "People are angry; they are frustrated."

The same economic angst and voter dismay with politics-as-usual that propelled Democratic candidates in 2006 and 2008 now are boosting Republicans - from the GOP contenders who won back governorships in New Jersey and Virginia in November, to the victory Tuesday by Brown's underdog campaign in a Democratic stronghold.

"Change is still the word of the day," non-partisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg says, "but the teams have changed uniforms."

Obama said Congress should wait for Brown to be sworn in before more votes are taken on health care, and that Democrats shouldn't "jam" through a bill aimed at expanding coverage and controlling costs. But he also said lawmakers should "move quickly to coalesce" around "core elements" such as new insurance rules and cost containment - a reflection of the White House's determination to be able to claim victory by passing something on the signature issue.

The returns in Massachusetts inspired an avalanche of analysis and spin over what the election's message was and how far-reaching it would be.

The lessons learned from Tuesday are likely to affect policy deliberations, candidate recruitment and political messaging in the coming months. The date of Brown's swearing-in isn't set, but he plans to make courtesy calls in the Senate today, including to Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

His clout as a senator is uncertain - freshman senators rarely have a lot - but he's had a big impact on Washington even before arriving here:

On health care

Democratic leaders say Brown's win hasn't killed the $1 trillion health care bill, but they emerged from hastily arranged negotiations Wednesday without a clear plan for how to proceed.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed confidence that a health care plan would pass, other Democrats were more cautious. Rep. Robert Andrews of New Jersey says the election showed "there's not sufficient support among the American people to pass this bill in its present form."

That sentiment, expressed repeatedly on Capitol Hill throughout the day, means the timetable for the legislation Obama had hoped to sign last year - before the election-year politics of 2010 could heat up - will continue to slip. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada says the Senate will take no further action on the issue until Brown is seated.

"Two words: Don't panic," says Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate's health committee. "Two more words: Resist chaos."

Brown's election froze the bill's momentum as the few options for bringing up the bill for a final vote dwindled. He had campaigned on being the "41st senator" who would give opponents the ability to stop the health-care bill - a proposal he said would cost too much and damage the U.S. health-care system. An election-night survey in Massachusetts by pollster Scott Rasmussen found 56 percent of voters there called health care their top issue.

Democratic leaders have been negotiating with the White House since late last year to reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill. Progress had been made but work remains.

Bill supporters such as Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, says the most logical approach would be to have the House pass the Senate's version - eliminating the need for a final Senate vote. Democratic leaders could continue to work through differences and, once they reach an agreement, pass separate legislation amending it.

"The very worst thing the Democrats could do is to abandon health reform," Pollack warns. "If the Democrats act out of fear and don't move forward, they're making the problem a whole lot worse."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a supporter, agrees that passing the Senate version in the House might work. But he acknowledges the Senate bill hasn't been an easy sell. "It's easy for a senator to say, 'Oh, well, we'll have the House pass it,' " Rockefeller says. "That's a hard thing to put on the House."

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., is more blunt: "I don't think it's a viable strategy."

Some Republicans say the White House still could get a health-care bill passed if it returns to the drawing board. "I never say anything is dead, but I think that clearly they're going to have to revisit the entire issue," says Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who voted for a version of the bill in the Senate Finance Committee. "You can't drive a policy that doesn't have the support of the American people."

On Obama and his agenda

Obama struck a conciliatory and almost apologetic tone in the ABC interview Wednesday, saying he had "lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people."

"I think, you know, what they ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment, where there's these technocrats up here making decisions," he said, calling it his mistake. That could signal a renewed effort by the president to explain and defend the health care bill, including criticism that it would cut Medicare services or increase costs for most Americans.

The White House also wants to get past the health care debate, however, and move quickly to issues such as creating more jobs and reducing deficit spending. Both concerns consistently rank higher than health care in polls on voters' priorities.

The pressure on spending . . . would make it harder to fund other programs, or to pursue legislative initiatives on energy and immigration that already have had trouble making progress in Congress.

Already, the White House this week agreed to a bipartisan commission that would recommend spending cuts and tax increases to control the federal deficit, which was $1.42 trillion in 2009. Last week, Obama turned to more populist rhetoric as he proposed a tax on banks aimed at reimbursing taxpayers for the financial bailout.

Obama aide David Axelrod told USA TODAY that Brown's victory will influence Obama's State of the Union address on Wednesday, although the reference to it may not be "overt."

"This was an event, right?" the White House adviser said. "It's certainly going to be on people's minds. We can't pass it over."

On the 2010 elections

There's little positive spin that can be used to soften the impact of the Democrats losing a Senate seat in what is arguably the most liberal state in the country - "the Kennedy seat," held by a Kennedy or close family associate since 1952.

"I have no interest in sugar-coating what happened," Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a letter to supporters. "We cannot take a single thing for granted and cannot afford even a second of complacency."

If Democrats aren't safe in Massachusetts, where are they safe?

The Massachusetts results put more pressure on Democrats who are seeing an exodus of some of their most vulnerable members. Rep. Vic Snyder, a seven-term Arkansas Democrat, last week became the latest to say he won't seek re-election. Rothenberg now rates 46 of the 256 Democratic House seats as in play during this fall's mid-term elections. Republicans need to gain 40 seats to take control.

After losses in the past three months in three states Obama won last year - Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts - "a lot of our members are spooked," says Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Democrats knew that their congressional majorities, swelled by Obama's sweep in 2008, were likely to be reduced in this year's election, says Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. By how much will depend on a factor not fully in anyone's control: "As the economy goes, so goes the party in power."

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texan who heads the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, says Brown's election continues a trend of independent voters "fleeing in droves." He added, "What that gives us is an opportunity."

Some Republicans tamped their glee. When House Republicans met privately Wednesday morning, "nobody was jumping up and down," says Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "Everybody said, 'This is an opportunity to show what we are for.' "

Brown's victory does not resolve - and may exacerbate - tension in the GOP between anti-tax conservatives who have fueled the "Tea Party" movement and establishment leaders who argue the party should nominate candidates in some states who can appeal to moderates.

Brown, who campaigned as an independent-minded voice for Massachusetts, declined to wade into that question Wednesday. Perhaps, he said, he represents "a new breed of Republican."

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