WASHINGTON -- When Democrats muscled their healthcare-reform bill through the Senate last month with no votes to spare, it seemed to be the last major hurdle for the centerpiece of Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
Democratic kingpins had bought off two reluctant senators with $100 million payoffs to their states, and the votes of others were purchased with enough pork-stuffed giveaways to embarrass a hog farmer.
All that remained, many Democrats thought at the time, was for the House and Senate to design a salable compromise between their two bills and ram it through, over the objections of the Republicans and a majority of the American people.
Democrats may still be able to do that with their large majorities in both chambers, but ever since the legislative calendar turned the corner into the 2010 election cycle, the political landscape has arguably turned more hostile toward Obamacare and the Democrats who supported it.
There can be a big political difference between tackling controversial and unpopular bills the year before an election and in the heat of battle when the campaigns have officially gotten under way. And that's what is happening now.
In the past two weeks, two top Democrats who voted for the Senate bill have announced they are not seeking re-election this year, in part owing to voter anger over their healthcare votes. Some have expressed regrets that the bill took such precedence over a battered, jobless economy just to satisfy Obama's political hunger for an end-of-the-year legislative victory. Still other Democrats have seen their poll numbers plunge even further in the aftermath of their vote.
Democrats are still reeling from the aftershocks triggered by the sudden retirements of Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota within a couple of weeks of their vote. Dorgan knew the bill was unpopular in his state, but voted for it anyway.
So did Dodd, who was already in trouble for accepting a cut-rate home-mortgage deal from a pal at Countrywide. But his central role in writing a healthcare bill along the lines of legislation championed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy earned him no additional support in his state.
Both Dodd and Dorgan saw their private polling numbers weaken still further after their Christmas Eve votes and chose to throw in the towel rather than face certain defeat in November.
In the meantime, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who had once said "my vote is not for sale, period," demanded that his state be shielded from the costs of the bill's expansion of Medicaid and got it (unleashing a torrent of anger from attorneys general in 13 states who said the deal was unconstitutional and threatened legal action).
But now, Nelson, who provided Democrats with the crucial 60th vote, is said to have "a serious case of buyer's remorse" after trying to explain his vote to doubting Nebraskans whose No. 1 concern is the recession and jobs, not health care.
"I think it was a mistake to take health care on as opposed to continuing to spend the time on the economy," he told the Fremont (Neb.) Tribune. "I would have preferred not to be dealing with health care in the midst of everything else, and I think working on the economy would have been a wiser move."
Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who similarly shook down Democratic leaders for a $100 million payoff, may also live to regret her vote for a bill deeply unpopular in her state where just 35 percent of the voters support the health-reform plan. With her re-election support plunging to 38 percent, the latest Rasmussen poll shows her trailing all four of her potential Republican challengers.
But perhaps the most stunning post-healthcare-vote results can be seen in Massachusetts, where the special Senate election race between Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley and GOP state Sen. Scott Brown has grown surprisingly tighter.
Coakley led Brown by 30 points last year and was considered a shoo-in to fill Kennedy's open seat. "But her lead has narrowed amid an anti-incumbent mood and a backlash against the Democrats' healthcare plan and high unemployment," Reuters reported this week.
A Republican victory in this heavily Democratic state seems unlikely, but an upset in this year's increasingly angry political climate cannot be ruled out. Especially in a race where Brown says, if elected, he will vote to "send this (health care) monstrosity back to the drawing board."
Clearly, the Democrats have the votes to push through whatever healthcare bill they put together -- if they remain united. But with the polls showing rising opposition to Obamacare, and so many Senate Democrats losing support in the wake of last month's critical vote, their 60-vote majority now looks shaky, indeed. Without it, Obamacare is dead.