UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:53am
Washington - — If the late Edward Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat isn't safe for Democrats, is Nancy Pelosi's speakership of the House safe?
The answer is yes, unless there's a Republican landslide in November. Forty Democratic House members would have to lose their seats to topple the San Francisco Democrat from the third-highest elected job in the country, just two steps down from the presidency.
Even before a stunning Republican victory in Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts rocked Democrats coast to coast a day before the anniversary of President Obama's inauguration a year ago, political handicappers were forecasting potential House losses at just under 30 seats.
No one expects a challenge to Pelosi before November, but if Democrats are bludgeoned and her 79-vote majority in the 435-member House narrowed to single digits, a post-election challenge is not unthinkable.
"It would take a lot, but it's not an impossibility," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "If a party is shell-shocked, the members of the caucus are going to be angry and they're going to ask who lost China."
No one has carried more water for Obama than Pelosi, who time and again has pushed the administration's agenda to House passage, only to watch it founder in the Senate.
The big test is health care legislation, the survival of which may require Pelosi to do what even she has warned may not be possible: force the House to accept a Senate bill that contains provisions that are anathema to liberal and conservative Democrats alike, from a tax on generous union health plans to abortion language that is not restrictive enough for a core group of Catholic House lawmakers.
Pelosi insisted Tuesday that "whatever happens in Massachusetts, we will pass quality, affordable health care for all Americans and it will be soon." Yet even if she somehow prevails, the election shock in Massachusetts will force her and the president to sharply scale back their ambitions.
Shock to the party
The Republican upset, which saw independents flock to the GOP, will send tremors through every Democratic lawmaker in the House and Senate facing voters in November, from California Sen. Barbara Boxer to the 49 House members elected in districts carried by Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race.
Democrats are "in big trouble," said Princeton University political scientist Julian Zelizer. "This year has been hard enough, but to go under 60 votes in the Senate (by losing the Massachusetts seat) is going to pretty much saw everything off. It's either going to be about dramatic compromises with moderate Democrats or just total obstruction and go into 2010 with nothing other than health care if they're lucky."
Yet as big a gut punch as the failure of health care might be to the party, it would be hard to pin it on Pelosi, whom many Democrats consider their most effective legislator.
"We know we're going to lose some seats, I don't think that's a surprise to anyone," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. "I don't think we lose the majority."
Pelosi managed to push through a climate change bill that no one thought could pass, on top of a string of accomplishments that have gone all but unnoticed amid the larger health care fight. She is a prodigious fundraiser, raising more money for other members than anyone else in the House.
Able to appease Blue Dogs
Her San Francisco liberal tag notwithstanding, she has managed to placate fiscally conservative Blue Dog House Democrats much more successfully than her Senate colleague Harry Reid, the majority leader and Nevada Mormon whose voting record is more conservative than Pelosi's.
"She's incredibly bright, she's been very successful moving public policy issues forward in the House, and she has been able to find middle ground and make issues acceptable to folks on our side of the aisle who are in more marginal seats," said Thompson, himself a Blue Dog.
Even before Massachusetts, Pelosi knew Democrats had to shift their focus to "jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs" to tamp the ugly mood among voters.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Tuesday the party would focus on "the concerns of everyday people" as opposed to insurance companies and Wall Street, while Republicans, animated by their right wing, indulge in an "ideological jag."
With Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown vowing during the Senate campaign to kill the health care bill with his first vote, Democrats know that the sooner they move on, the better.
Pelosi is betting that passage of the health care bill will show voters their fears were unwarranted. If not, the Massachusetts results may be seen as a repudiation of the entire Democratic leadership.