WILL, WHETHER, AND HOW #60 CHANGES THE EQUATION…. State senators in Massachusetts will begin debate today on allowing Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint an interim senator to fill Ted Kennedy’s vacancy until January. Republicans, who delayed consideration of the measure last week, are prepared to let the debate begin in earnest this morning.

A vote on the bill may come as early as today. If it passes, Patrick can sign it tomorrow and an interim U.S. senator can be sworn in before the week’s end. It would, obviously, bring the total of senators in the Democratic caucus from 59 back to 60.

All of this has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reevaluating how Democrats are going to pursue health care reform. Roll Call reports today that a 60-vote caucus makes the need for reconciliation process, wrought with hurdles and complications, a lot less pressing.

Reid noted that Baucus’ gambit, while unsuccessful, was an attempt to avoid using strict budget reconciliation rules that would limit Reid’s ability to achieve all the reforms Democrats are seeking, even though those rules would obviate the need for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. […]

Reid said he is hopeful the Massachusetts Legislature will soon vote to allow the governor to appoint a replacement for Kennedy so he will again be able to call on 60 Senators, but he said that has not stopped Democrats from pursuing one of the few Republicans seen as open to bipartisan compromise — Snowe.

“They’re working on a Senator up in Massachusetts,” Reid said. “There are different ways we can get to 60 votes. It’s not just dependent totally on her. I hope we can [get Snowe’s vote]. She’s a good legislator.”

But he said he is doing everything he can to avoid using reconciliation to pass health care reform.

“I would rather do a bill that we can get 60 votes on, either on a bipartisan basis or a partisan basis,” he said.

Of course, just to focus that a little, Reid wouldn’t need 60 votes to pass a reform bill; he’d need 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

And at that point, the main hurdle between passage and less-attractive alternatives is a commitment from the caucus that members — whether they’re prepared to vote for the final bill or not — will not support a Republican filibuster.

It gets back to a point I’ve been harping on a lot lately. As Ed Kilgore recently argued, “That Democrats could be against health reform is disappointing. That they’d deny a vote on it is unacceptable…. [T]he time has come — and in fact, it is long overdue — for them to begin forcefully making the case that being a member in good standing of the party’s Senate caucus means supporting cloture motions on key legislation even if a given senator intends to vote against it.”

This shouldn’t even be controversial — to be a member of the caucus means letting the Senate vote on Democratic bills. It doesn’t mean every Dem has to vote for every Democratic idea; it means they at least have to let the vote happen.

Jon Chait recently said he has hard time envisioning a member of the Senate Democratic caucus casting a “vote to filibuster health care reform to death.” It’s just hard to imagine, he said, a Dem taking “the active step of killing what has been the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda for sixty years.”

I’m not nearly as confident, but if the party-unity approach holds, Olympia Snowe will no longer be the most important politician in the country, and passage of an ambitious reform package appears much more likely.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.