SENATE HealthCare procedural vote set for Saturday
Senate Democrats Rounding Up Votes for Crucial Healthcare Test
November 20, 2009 Washington Bureau - NOAM N. LEVEY Reporting from Washington
Senate Democratic leaders, having negotiated critical last-minute commitments, Friday stood on the verge of achieving the 60 votes they need to begin consideration of the most expansive healthcare legislation to go before the Senate in nearly half a century.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, who was among three Democratic holdouts, announced that he would back an all-important procedural vote set for Saturday that will allow the chamber to take up the wide-ranging bill unveiled this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
And Democratic leaders expect Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to support a cloture vote on the so-called "motion to proceed," although the two lawmakers have not formally announced their plans
With the backing of those three senators, Democratic leaders are all but assured of clearing the procedural hurdle, a key step if Congress is to send President Obama a healthcare bill by the end of January, as party leaders hope.
The Senate would start formal debate on Democrats' top domestic priority when lawmakers come back from their Thanksgiving recess on Nov. 30 – beginning with consideration of a series of proposed amendments from both sides of the aisle.
The House has already passed its version of healthcare legislation, which will ultimately have to be reconciled with the Senate bill.
The $848 billion Senate measure is designed to expand coverage to another 31 million Americans over the next decade, while restraining federal deficits and taking steps to make the nation's healthcare system more efficient and more reliable for patients.
It is funded by a politically delicate mix of cuts to the federal Medicare system and new taxes on healthcare industries, high-end "Cadillac" health plans and wealthy households.
The measure is so politically charged that finding the votes even to take up the legislation turned into a Capitol drama that dragged on for weeks.
With Republican lawmakers determined to filibuster every stage of the legislative process, all of the 58 Democratic senators and the two independents who caucus with them must hold together to move any healthcare legislation.
That has forced the majority leader, a veteran parliamentary strategist, to cut numerous side deals to satisfy the demands of individual lawmakers in his caucus.
Reid included language in his bill that would boost aid for Louisiana's Medicaid insurance program for the poor in a bid for Landrieu's support.
He slashed proposed new taxes on the medical device industry to ease the concerns of Democrats from states that are home to large device makers, such as Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.
And Friday, Reid struck a deal with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who has been pressing to allow more Americans to access new insurance exchanges where commercial insurers would compete to offer plans to consumers who do not get health benefits through work.
Guess which employers we may thank for the impetuous required for Congress to proceed with providing Americans with Universal HealthCare which undoubtly will be signed into law by Obama. Likely before Christmas or immediately after the New Year
Wyden's controversial proposal, which Reid agreed to add to the bill, would open the exchange to about a million workers who could not afford the health plans offered by their employers, according to an estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Wyden believes that will help make health insurance more affordable, although critics in the business community say it could weaken the current employer-based system through which most Americans get their health coverage.
Underscoring how fraught the Democrats' search for votes has been, Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was forced Friday morning to clarify a statement he made to reporters that suggested Lincoln had told Reid how she would vote.
Republicans seized on Durbin's comment, charging that Lincoln, who is up for reelection next year, had told Reid about her plans before she told her constituents in Arkansas.
"Let me be clear," Durbin said in the clarification, "Senator Lincoln has had a number of conversations with Sen. Reid about the health care reform legislation. She has asked important questions and there has been a positive and healthy give and take. But Sen. Lincoln has not yet signaled her intention as to how she will vote."
Republican lawmakers have also kept up a steady effort to make it more difficult for conservative Democrats to vote to open debate, casting the parliamentary move as a referendum on the healthcare bill itself.
"(This) vote is something we need to look at as a vote that's not some sort of … a procedural vote," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said on the Senate floor Friday. "It's a substantive vote on whether or not we're going to fundamentally change the way health care is delivered in this country."
Nelson firmly rejected that characterization.
"It is only to begin debate and an opportunity to make improvements," he said in a statement Friday. "If you don't like a bill, why block your own opportunity to amend it? … I won't slam the doors of the Senate in the face of Nebraskans now. They want the health care system fixed. The Senate owes them a full and open debate to try to do so."
Nelson has indicated unease about several key components of the legislation, including the creation of a new government insurance plan and restrictions on federal funding for abortion, which Nelson said he wants to see strengthened.
Demands like these - which figure to define the upcoming debate – will likely complicate Reid's attempt to pass the healthcare legislation even if he prevails on the procedural motion today.
The rules of the Senate will require Reid to cobble together 60 votes again to end debate on the healthcare bill and bring it up for a final vote, which he hopes to do before Christmas.
Several lawmakers who oppose the government insurance plan, including Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said they would not vote for a bill unless the "public option" provision is removed.
They may back an amendment during the upcoming debate that would create a so-called "trigger." Under such an arrangement, a government plan could only be created in parts of the country where commercial insurers did not meet benchmarks for quality and affordability.
Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, plan to seek other changes, including more aid to low-income Americans to help them buy health insurance.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said that although he will support today's procedural vote, his support for a final bill is "not at all guaranteed."