Obama seeks to save Kennedy Senate seat, health vote


Barack Obama, Martha Coakley
Barack Obama, Martha Coakley

President Barack Obama waves at a campaign stop for Democratic senate candidate, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley at Northeastern University in Boston, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010.

Alex Brandon/The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 10:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 10:11 a.m.

BOSTON — President Barack Obama stepped in to try to bolster the Democrat in a tight race to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy, an effort meant to keep Republicans from gaining a seat that could stall Obama's health care reform plan.

Meanwhile, the White House and congressional Democrats scrambled to come up with a fallback plan to pass health care legislation in case of a loss in Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts.

The vote will be held a day shy of the one-year anniversary of Obama's historic inauguration as the first black U.S. president. But just how much voters' mood has soured was reflected in the president's decision to rush to Massachusetts to campaign for the embattled Democratic candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Despite the northeastern state's long Democratic tradition, polls show Coakley and Republican Scott Brown, a little known state senator, locked in a dead heat. They are competing to replace Kennedy, a proud liberal and leading advocate for health care reform during his nearly 47 years in the Senate. Kennedy died in August, and his seat has been held in the interim by a Democratic appointee who is not in the running.

Massachusetts hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

If elected, Brown says he would vote against Obama's health care bill, robbing Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to prevent Republicans from blocking it and other parts of Obama's agenda. Obama has made overhauling the U.S. health care system, in which nearly 50 million lack insurance, his top domestic priority.

The unexpectedly tight Senate race in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1 reflects a nasty anti-establishment environment ahead of November congressional elections in which Democrats hope to hang onto their majority.

The high stakes were reflected in Obama's decision to leave Washington at a sensitive time and campaign on Sunday for a seat that his party has held for more than a half-century. Health care negotiations with Congress are at their most critical stage, and Obama has also been focused on helping Haiti recovery from last week's devastating earthquake.

"Understand what's at stake here Massachusetts. It's whether we're going forward or going backwards," Obama said during a rally for Coakley as he tried to energize his dispirited base in the Democratic stronghold of Boston. "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election."

Coakley had led Brown by double-digits in polls after the December primaries. But Brown has been able to tap into voter anger and anxiety over budget-busting spending, health care, expanded government and high unemployment to pull even.

"It's us against the machine," Brown said at an appearance Sunday in Worcester, the state's second largest city. "The establishment is afraid of losing their Senate seat. You can all remind them that this is not their seat, it is yours."

In Washington, White House aides and Democratic lawmakers frantically hashed out plans to save the health care bill in case of a Brown upset. The likeliest scenario would require House Democrats to accept a bill the Senate passed last month, despite their objections to several parts. Obama could sign it into law without another Senate vote needed. House of Representatives leaders would urge the Senate to make changes later under a complex plan the would require only a simple majority.

Massachusetts officials say it could take more than two weeks to certify the election results, which may give Democrats enough time to push Obama's signature legislation through Congress. Democratic Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr., the interim appointee to Kennedy's seat, says he would vote for the bill if given the chance.

With the race this tight, Democrats needed Obama to rally their loyalists, particularly working class and minority voters.

That said, the president's popularity isn't what it was when he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. Polls now show Obama's job approval hovering around 50 percent or below it, even in Massachusetts, where he cruised to victory by 26 percentage points over McCain in the 2008 election.

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