In the wake of Republican Scott Brown's stunning defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in the race to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the debate has begun about what the outcome means for President Obama and Democrats nationwide.
Brown won 52 percent of voters to Coakley's 47 percent in Tuesday's special Senate election. Coakley, the state attorney general, had a 30-point lead three months ago.
Republicans believe a win in the bluest of blue states, where a Republican had not been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1972, amounts to a popular rebuke of the president's agenda.
"There's been a pattern here that began last spring, and the administration has refused to acknowledge what the people out across the country have been saying," GOP chairman Michael Steele said on "Good Morning America" today.
"For the Democrats, this is clearly not the change they expected, but it's certainly the change the people of Massachusetts -- like the people in New Jersey and Virginia -- wanted," Steele said.
Steele called the outcome in Massachusetts a "repudiation" of Democrats' health care overhaul legislation pending in Congress, saying 41 Republican votes in the Senate now effectively kill the bill in its current form. Democrats needed to retain 60 votes to prevent a Republican filibuster.
"Start from scratch. Start by listening to the people," Steele advised his Democratic colleagues on health care.
For his part, Brown had campaigned in opposition to the Obama health care proposal, saying he would vote against the bill if elected.
"One thing is very, very clear as I travelled throughout the state," Brown, a lawyer and former model, said in his acceptance speech last night. "People do not want the trillion-dollar heath care plan that is being forged."
But many Democrats rebutted the notion that Brown's victory is a major statement on Obama and the Democrat's legislative agenda, including health care overhaul.
"We won the House and Senate in 2006, we won the White House in 2008. ... People sent the unmistakable message they wanted change. We have to deliver on that," former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said on "GMA."
"The Republicans have chosen their path: They are doing the bidding of insurance companies, just as they're going to do with big banks as it relates to financial reform. We have a good health care plan, and we need to pass that," Plouffe said.
Obama's Reaction to Brown Win?
The White House has previously deflected suggestions that a Brown victory would amount to a referendum on the Obama presidency, vowing to move ahead on its agenda.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of upset and anger in this country about where we are economically," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday.
Asked whether he believed Americans are now attaching that frustration with Washington to Obama, Gibbs said, "I think there is certainly some attachment to us."
Still, the administration and many Democrats plan to continue pursuing their agenda "full speed ahead."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday night the loss of the 60-vote majority will not change the Democrats' priorities.
"While senator-elect Brown's victory changes the political math in the Senate, we remain committed to strengthening our economy, creating good-paying jobs and ensuring all Americans can access affordable health care," Reid said in a statement. "We hope that Scott Brown will join us in these efforts. There is much work to do to address the problems Democrats inherited last year, and we plan to move full speed ahead."
Although Democrats no longer have the votes needed to thwart a Republican filibuster, they maintain the largest Senate majority either party has enjoyed since 1979 and still have the ability to pass legislation through reconciliation, a process that bypasses normal Senate rules by requiring only 51 votes.
What's Next for Health Care Initiative
Brown has said he opposes Democrats' health care overhaul working its way through Congress, leaving Democrats scrambling to develop contingency plans for the bill's passage.
Several congressional sources say reconciliation -- or forcing legislation though on a simple majority -- is off the table because it would mean having to start over and could risk losing some Democratic moderates, which in turn could cost Democrats the bill altogether. But a few Democrats have suggested that reconciliation is a viable option.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Monday, "Let's remove all doubt, we will have health care -- one way or another."
Another option: The House could pass the Senate version of the health care bill verbatim, which would send the legislation to the president's desk without protracted negotiations.
"Whether there are 59 seats in the Senate or 60, we still have to work hard to get our economy back on track," Gibbs said Tuesday. "We still have to work hard to make the promise of affordable, accessible health care for millions of Americans a reality."
Meanwhile, public support for the president and Democrats' plan to overhaul the health care system continues to wane.
In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51 percent of Americans said they oppose health care overhaul efforts, with only 44 percent in favor.
At its peak, in September and again in November, 30 percent of Americans "strongly" backed the proposed changes. With the plan still undergoing modifications, that has dropped to 22 percent, a new low. Substantially more, 39 percent, are "strongly" opposed, a number that's held steadier.
The Newest Senate Republican
Brown, 50, will become the 41st Republican in the Senate after he's sworn in in the coming days.
The state senator, lawyer and former model is married to Gail Huff, a reporter at the Boston ABC affiliate and former co-host of a parenting show on the Lifetime television network, and has a daughter, Ayla, who was a semi-finalist on "American Idol" in 2006.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said he would notify the Senate today that Brown had been elected, even though he had said earlier it could take more than two weeks to certify the special-election results.
Reid said Tuesday that Brown would be seated "as soon as the proper paperwork has been received."
A delay could give Democrats time to try to push through final passage of Obama's health care plan, although some have suggested that Brown's victory should put the process on hold.
"In many ways, the campaign in Massachusetts became a referendum not only on health care reform but also on the openness and integrity of our government process," Virginia Democrat Sen. Jim Webb said in a statement.
"To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until senator-elect Brown is seated."
GOP Says Brown's Senate Victory Sends a Message to Obama
While many Democrats deny that the Massachusetts race is a preview of what's to come in the November general election, Republicans say the symbolism of Brown's victory is hard to deny.
"As we look forward to the mid-term elections this November, Democrats nationwide should be on notice: Americans are ready to hold the party in power accountable for their irresponsible spending and out-of-touch agenda, and they're ready for real change in Washington," National Republican Campaign Committee chairman John Cornyn said after Brown's victory.
Massachusetts, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three to one, has long been a Democratic stronghold, sending two Democratic senators to Washington for each of the past 31 years.
The last time a Republican senator was elected in Massachusetts was November 1972, when Sen. Edward Brooke won the coveted seat.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said the message voters sent in Brown's victory was not lost on the party.
"I have no interest in sugar coating what happened in Massachusetts," Menendez said. "There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient. The truth is Democrats understand the economic anger voters feel, that's in large part why we did well in 2006 and 2008.
"In the days ahead, we will sort through the lessons of Massachusetts: the need to redouble our efforts on the economy, the need to show that our commitment to real change is as powerful as it was in 2008, and the reality that we cannot take a single thing for granted and cannot afford even a second of complacency."