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Health care bill clears tough Senate test

Vote ends GOP delay tactics, all but assures passage later in week

Harry Reid

AP Photo/Harry Hamburg

Victoria Reggie Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, greets Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., center, looks on following a 60-40 cloture vote which is the first step on passing a health care bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 21, 2009.

Updated Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009 | 11:45 p.m.

Reid Statement

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released the following statement this morning after the Senate invoked cloture on the manager’s amendment to The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act:
  • “Today, the Senate took another historic step toward our goal of delivering access to quality, affordable health care to all Americans. Our manager’s amendment makes a good bill even better. The CBO has confirmed that with the revisions we’ve made to our bill cuts the deficit by $132 billion dollars in the next ten years, while providing health care to an additional 31 million Americans. This amendment also helps to promote choice and competition to drive down skyrocketing health care costs for families in Nevada and all across America.
  • “Senate Democrats are determined to not let the American people down because we know the cost of inaction. Almost 8,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day that we do not act. That’s why I’ve been so disappointed with the ‘do nothing, say anything’ approach that most Senate Republicans have decided to take toward health reform. Despite their decision to bet on failure, Senate Democrats are committed to passing health legislation this week that will deliver quality, affordable health coverage for all Americans.”

WASHINGTON — In the narrowest of party-line votes, the Senate early this morning advanced the health care reform bill on a path toward passage by Christmas, reaching the 60 votes needed to overcome a wall of opposition.

One by one, senators voted from their desks, some standing as they did so, with the full Democratic caucus casting the 60 votes necessary to move the legislation forward. Every Republican in the chamber voted no.

White House officials looked on from the visitors’ gallery. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s months of long, tough negotiations resulted in a critical advancement of President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy priority.

Reid emerged from the chamber briefly after the vote to an embrace from Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of former Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who made health care reform his life’s work.

Reid invoked President Lyndon B. Johnson’s advice while signing Medicare into law a generation ago to “see beyond words to the people that they touch.”

Reid shared stories of Nevadans who have written to him about their health care problems. Lisa from Gardnerville who postpones her own visits to the doctor so her child can go. Caleb from Sparks, a teenager who needs prosthetic legs that fit. Mike from Mesquite who cannot afford his son’s medical care.

“This isn’t about partisanship or procedure. It’s not about politics, and it’s not about polling. It is about people,” Reid said. “I cannot look away. I cannot possibly do nothing.”

The 1 a.m. vote sets the Senate on a series of procedural steps over the coming days that could lead to final passage on Christmas Eve.

“The die is cast,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democratic leader in the Senate. “This bill is now going to pass the Senate.”

But nothing happens easy in this hyper-partisan era of Washington politics.

Republicans remain fully opposed to the legislation, which they believe will lead to higher taxes and greater insurance costs for individuals and businesses. They are requiring every minute of allowable debate to kill the now-2,733-page “monster bill.”

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., joined all his colleagues in voting no. His officed release no comments.

Republicans denounced the sweetheart deals Reid made to secure Democratic votes and upturned new ones -- including a $100 million allotment to an unnamed hospital.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma went so far as to suggest the nation pray that not all 60 senators arrive for the middle-of-the-night vote.

“What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight,” Coburn said on the Senate floor. “That’s what they ought to pray.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, delivered a thundering floor speech that ended as he turned to the Democratic side of the aisle, pointing at the senators as he sought one vote to halt the process.

“All it takes is one, just one,” McConnell said. “One can stop it or every single one will own it.”

Yet Democrats continued their slow and steady advance toward Obama’s top domestic priority.

The bill would bring reforms to the industry to ban insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and allow the nation’s 30 million uninsured to buy policies from a new menu overseen by the government from private insurers – similar to the way members of Congress shop for health care.

New taxes would be imposed on insurance companies and the wealthy — those earning $200,000 annually or $250,000 for couples — to pay for subsidies so low- and middle-income Americans can buy insurance. A tax on plastic surgery was ditched for a 10 percent tax on those using tanning salons.

All Americans would be required to carry health care policies or face fines of up to $2,250 annually for a family, as experts believe overall insurance costs can be lowered if the risk pool is widened.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the bill would reduce the federal deficit and lower the government’s rate of annual Medicare spending — helping to meet some of the goals sought as lawmakers set out to revamp the nation’s health care system.

Prominent voices on the left continued to criticize the legislation as too watered down from its initial goals. Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean complained on a morning talk show about the “unseemly scrambling” for an agreement.

But senators received a heartfelt plea from Kennedy’s wife to complete her husband’s longtime goal.

“I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass health-care reform now,” Kennedy wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “As Ted always said, when it's finally done, the people will wonder what took so long.”

Several Democratic senators that had deep reservations about the bill stepped forward on Sunday to announce their commitment, all but ensuring Reid has secured the votes needed to advance the bill.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who faces a difficult re-election in 2010 in a state that Obama lost, announced her support, as did Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a strong liberal who fought for the now-abandoned public option plan.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the one Republican being courted as a possible supporter, said she told both Obama and Reid on Saturday she would not be on board.

"It really does deserve more time," Snowe said.

Reid noted that Sunday would be the shortest day of the year, but as the hours counted down to the 1 a.m. vote it might not have felt that way.

The city remained quieted Sunday night after the season’s first big snow storm covered the capital, essentially shutting down the area.

Senators arrived in parkas in the middle of the night, some looking tired. Some senators and staff have been camped out at a nearby hotel to avoid driving in the difficult weather.

Polls remain mixed on health care reform with Americans increasingly saying they oppose the effort, even as they overwhelmingly say they want improvements to health care.

Democrats are confident the legislation will gain in popularity as voters learn about the different components. Republicans are counting on it failing to do so.

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