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Senate Prepares Health Care Finale

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (left), huddling with Finance Chairman Max Baucus, is looking to bring the yearlong health care debate to a relatively drama-free close this week.

The Senate kicked off its debate on the health care reconciliation bill Tuesday, but without the tension that characterized its consideration of a health care overhaul in December and the spellbinding drama that marked the House’s high-stakes passage of a package Sunday night.

While far from dull, the Senate’s final stretch in the health care debate is anything but a nail-biter. Democratic Senators already had to take tough votes on unsavory provisions such as the “Cornhusker Kickback” that covered Medicaid costs for Nebraska when they approved the original reform package. Plus, the House has already voted on the Senate-passed bill, which the president signed into law Tuesday.

And there is little doubt that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has the 51 votes needed to pass the budget reconciliation package of fixes the House passed late Sunday.

“We went through our Armageddon in December when we passed this bill. And so we’ve been through this, and this is fixing things, and a lot of us are more than happy to get rid of that Nebraska deal,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, referencing the controversial Senate deal that was added late last year to win over support from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). The reconciliation bill eliminates that provision and enhances Medicaid payments for all states.

The primary concern for Senate Democrats this week will come during what Klobuchar described as the “vote-a-rama drama” when Democratic leaders will ask their rank and file to vote against amendments they may support in an effort to keep the bill as similar to the House-passed version as possible.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) announced Tuesday that he would force a vote on an amendment that would bar insurance coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders. But given the Democrats’ promise to oppose any and all amendments, most will have to vote against the politically charged proposal that could be used against Senators in campaign ads.

Additionally, Senate Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) said the expectation of long nights and even the possibility of overnight sessions is daunting to Senators.

“That’s drama, you know, for this body,” McCaskill said. At press time, it was unclear whether Senate Republicans and Democrats would come to an agreement that would prevent such late-night sessions.

Still, Democrats on Tuesday were feeling increasingly confident that Republicans will not be able to use budget points of order to poke holes in the bill, or that if those problems arise they will be so minor as to make few substantive changes to the measure overall.

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