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POLITICS:

Health fix-up bill passes Senate, heads back to House

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AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks during a health care reform news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 25, 2010. From left are, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Reid, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Updated Thursday, March 25, 2010 | 1:02 p.m.

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WASHINGTON -- After nearly pulling an all-nighter, the Senate today passed the final element of health care reform, making good on its promise to House Democrats to fix up the bill that President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.

The Senate voted 56-43 to pass the reconciliation bill that makes several changes Democrats wanted despite hours of non-stop challenges from Republicans to gut the bill with amendments.

“The American people have waited for this moment for a century,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The reconciliation bill now returns to the House for a final vote, likely tonight. Democrats had hoped to avoid sending the bill back to the House, which narrowly approved it on Sunday. But a procedural challenge from Republicans made two slight revisions, which require the do-over vote.

The Senate was in session until 2:45 a.m. today as Democrats sought to pass their fix-up bill and Republicans offered dozens of amendments to substantially change it.

The reconciliation bill would make several changes to the health care law that Democrats support -- including doing away with the Cornhusker Kickback for Nebraska, increasing subsidies for the uninsured to buy insurance and giving seniors $250 toward prescription drug costs.

Yet Republicans were offering further changes that Democrats stood together to block. Republicans offered amendments to deny Viagra to sex offenders, force a referendum on gay marriage in the District of Columbia and others to substantially change the underlying bill Obama signed into law.

Republican Sen. John Ensign offered an amendment on medical malpractice reform that was rejected.

All of the Republican amendments failed to advance, yet Republicans refused to relent. As Wednesday turned into Thursday, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, announced his party's position: "We'll keep voting."

Reid said Republicans were trying to "destroy this bill."

Republicans did succeed in finding two minor provisions in the legislation that do not meet the strict rules of the reconciliation process, forcing the do-over vote in the House.

One of the problems identified by Republicans involves the student loan portion of the bill, which was a last-minute addition to help secure Democratic votes with the popular student loan reform bill that passed the House months ago but has been held up in the Senate.

The other problem is a minor glitch to strike obsolete language, sources said.

Democrats were hoping to avoid a second vote in the House, but they insisted Thursday that the problems identified by Republicans were minor and would be approved by the House.

Senators stood at their seats this afternoon, and cast their votes one by one. All but three Democrats voted for the reconciliation and Republicans, including Ensign, were unified in voting no. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas voted against, as did Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson on Nebraska. Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia was absent.

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