Donald Lambro

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.

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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.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.