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Latinos and the Political Earthquake in Massachusetts

National Institute for Latino Policy, Commentary, Angelo Falcn Posted: Jan 20, 2010

There was that horrible earthquake that devastated Haiti. Last night, Massachusetts and the United States experienced a political earthquake that could be as in many ways as profound with the election of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley to the U.S. Senate. And today is the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which means that the Massachusetts debacle will be magnified by media assessments of the President's first year.

The immediate debate in Washington, D.C., among Democrats is how to tactically address the fate of the health insurance reform bill now that the filibuster-proof Senate is gone. Some want to push it through quickly before Scott Brown is seated, others want to wait, and some think the bill is dead. Word is that the White House prefers passing the Senate version of the health bill, which is the weaker of the two versions, but which they see as politically the most viable. The Republicans for the most part seem interested in killing the bill.

But whatever happens, two things seem clear. First, the Democratic Party and the president are now in the most defensive position they have been so far during this administration. Second, the Latino community is going to get screwed on health care . . . and immigration reform.

Both the House and Senate versions of the health insurance reform bills were highly flawed, raising serious questions that their description as "reform" applies. In both versions Latinos are disproportionately handicapped in our access to affordable health care, but more so in the Senate version. Part of the rumored White House strategy of supporting passage of the Senate version is that the president will fix it in the future. But this was a promise that then President Bill Clinton made in 1996 and broke about his welfare reform bill that created so many problems for Latino immigrants, including creating the five-year waiting period for legal permanent residents eligibility for federal health care programs that is such a problem today, despite being taxpayers.

The other strategy some pro-health reform advocates are promoting is to withdraw this comprehensive bill and come back to the Congress with a set of narrower bills that will address specific reforms, like eliminating pre-existing conditions exclusions in health insurance and so on. This, of course, is as exhausting as it sounds and it is not clear that the health reform fatigue being experienced by the Democrats in the Congress will make this doable.

This is a set of circumstances that do not augur well for the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform in the immediate future. But this will need to be the subject of future analysis on these pages.

It is also clear that the political earthquake in Massachusetts has broader political implications. This and other developments this year have pointed to the reality that President Obama was elected in large part because of divisions within the leaderships of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the weakening of the country's party system. After winning in November and starting to govern, the President has found himself with a formal party apparatus that is in disarray (Blue Dog v. Progressive Democrats) and an independent virtual-grassroots constituency that hasn't emerged as the strong movement for change that many anticipated last year. On top of that, the president seems to be losing support among the growing ranks of independent voters.

The big question is: Where do Latino needs and issues fit within all this? How are Latino leaders strategizing to make the Democratic Party, which the majority of Latinos consistently support, more responsive to their community? Are Latino leaders developing strategies to organize independent Latino voters in new ways by finding ways to organize beyond the two-party system? Do, in other words, the weaknesses in the current political system represent opportunities for the Latino community? Let's see what happens as this sure to be eventful year unfolds.

Angelo Falcn is president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) and editor of the Latino Policy eNewsletter.

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