Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009 | 3:41 p.m.
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WASHINGTON — The Senate cleared the last 60-vote procedural hurdle to health care reform on Wednesday afternoon, setting up a final vote at 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve on President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy issue.
White House officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, watched from the gallery as the 24-day debate entered its last stretch.
Photos are not allowed on the Senate floor but if they were, they would have captured pivotal scenes.
Nearly all the Democrats remained in the chamber as the votes were being cast.
At one point, as senators waited for the clerks to acknowledge their votes, three Republicans stood patiently by the clerk’s desk. All three pointed their index fingers down to register their intent.
Hardly any stuck around for the final tally. The procedural motion cleared 60-39, with Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky absent.
The sweeping legislation would require every American to carry health insurance by 2014, with government subsidies helping low- and middle-income families afford care.
The insurance industry would be banned from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and required to invest 85 percent of its earnings into care.
Thirty million uninsured Americans would eventually become covered.
The price tag is estimated at $871 billion over the next 10 years and would be paid for by new taxes, including on those making at least $200,000 annually — $250,000 for couples — those with high-end “Cadillac” health plans, insurance companies, drug and medical device manufacturers, and tanning salons.
Republicans believe the legislation would lead to higher premium costs and an undue influence of government in private lives.
If the bill crosses the final 51-vote threshold on Thursday, it would next need to be merged with the House-passed bill, a potentially difficult process. The two bills contain stark differences, and House Democrats have already expressed a deep reluctance to cave on core provisions.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to entertain a discussion of how that thorny process may play out — or whether both chambers could come to an agreement in time for Obama’s State of the Union address being planned for early next year.
The entire 60-member Democratic caucus assembled after the vote, though missing were key senators who left their imprint on the bill: Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.
“It has been a long, hard road,” Reid said, standing with the senators. Reid described the vote not as partisan politics but as “60 leaders who stood up to the insurance companies for families all over American.
“I see it as 60 leaders who know it’s long-passed time we declared health care a right and not a privilege,” Reid said.
“Health care reform is about people; it’s about a half-million Nevadans,” he said, referring to the uninsured Nevadans who would have access to care under the bill.
The majority leader was roundly praised by his colleagues.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Health committee, repeated a favorite line in describing Reid’s leadership in guiding the caucus to this point in the face of Republican opposition.
“To put it in Biblical terms, he has exhibited the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and the endurance of Sampson,” Harkin said. “He is on the verge of achieving what majority leaders going back for the past decades have been unable to accomplish. Make no mistake, Majority Leader Reid has earned his place in the Senate’s history.”
When pressed, though, how Reid planned to overcome the obstacles in merging the House and Senate bills, Reid said he was taking a few days off at home in Searchlight before tackling that question.
“For a few days, I’m going to just sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus,” he said.