Reid’s Health Care Bill Strategy Clears First Hurdle

Posted December 18, 2009 at 12:23am

Updated: 2:19 a.m.

At least for now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has managed to stay on schedule to pass health care legislation by Christmas after the Senate early Friday morning agreed to vote on the Defense spending bill and get it out of the way.

The 63-33 cloture vote, which began just after 1 a.m. Friday morning, capped a turbulent day in which Reid came close to being undone thanks to an unlikely confluence of events.

While the unusual midnight session of the Senate may have kicked off on a bipartisan note with Sen. Al Franken (D-Wis.) in the chair and “guest chaplain— Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) leading a handful of lawmakers and staff in prayer, the chamber quickly descended into partisan attacks as Democrats and Republicans traded shots over who was holding up the Defense spending bill.

The Pentagon’s budget is scheduled to run dry at the end of the day Friday.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) accused Republicans of attempting to filibuster the Defense bill, which includes funding for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, in an effort to block work on the health care bill.

“Think about what the message is to our troops and their families if an unrelated issue, as important as that issue is, is allowed to interfere with us appropriating the necessary funds for the men and women who put the uniform of this nation on, who take that risk for us. Let us remember that as we vote tonight and understand what the stakes are if this filibuster succeeds,— Levin said.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and other Republicans, however, sought to place the blame for the funding delay on Democrats, accusing them of dragging their feet in bringing the bill to the floor and arguing they are prepared to pass the bill.

“I find it rather curious that our colleague … is accusing Republicans of filibustering this Defense appropriations bill. Republicans don’t control the Senate or the House. The House just passed this bill Wednesday. Now, it could have been passed in October or September,— Kyl said, adding that, “We always vote for the Defense appropriations bill.—

But Democrats quickly sought to call Republicans’ bluff as Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Kyl to agree to a unanimous consent agreement to simply pass the bill rather than hold the scheduled cloture vote to end debate. “I would like to make a unanimous consent request now that we pass this bill immediately,— Durbin said. Kyl, however, demurred, saying “with all due respect, I’ll decline that kind invitation, given the fact that the Majority Leader saw fit to call us here to vote at 1 a.m.—

A visibly angry Reid used the vote to again attack Republicans, accusing them of being willing to put troops at risk to halt the health care bill he is pushing through the Senate.

“We are here in the middle of the night, but the reason is as clear as day: Senate Republicans so desperately want to turn their backs on Americans who are suffering and dying for want of decent health care, that they are threatening to turn their backs on America’s troops at wartime. Rarely has the Senate seen such a sad statement. Rarely have I seen such brazen irresponsibility,— Reid said.

In the end, only three Republicans — Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — voted for the bill.

Hutchison, who is facing a tough primary race against Gov. Rick Perry in her bid for the governor’s mansion in Texas, was the first Republican to vote “yes,— and only after all of the chamber’s 60 Democrats had voted “yes,— ensuring the vote would succeed. Hutchison’s vote was met with audible murmurs from Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who loudly proclaimed “well played!—

Several others, most notably Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) who has more than $160 million in earmarks in the bill, were clearly unhappy in toeing the party’s line on the vote.

Although in the end Reid was able to secure the needed votes to pass the bill — and score some political points against Republicans — earlier on Thursday it seemed he would have a more difficult time.

With anti-war Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) refusing to agree to the cloture vote to end debate on the Defense bill, Reid was relying on a “gentleman’s agreement— reportedly struck between Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Cochran. Under their deal, Cochran would break with Republicans and vote for cloture, giving Reid his 60 votes to bring the bill to the floor.

But late in the day Thursday, Cochran informed Democrats he was planning to vote against the cloture motion — a move that put Reid’s carefully orchestrated timeline in jeopardy of collapsing.

The Senate adjourned for the evening, and Reid called a closed-door meeting of the Democratic Conference. Feingold ultimately bowed to pressure from his colleagues and agreed to vote to bring the Defense bill to the floor, rather than aid Republicans in their efforts to use a Defense bill delay to scuttle the health care bill.

Although the cloture vote was a major hurdle to pass, Reid’s course to final passage of the health care bill remains difficult: Republicans are forcing him to run out the clock on the 30 hours of post-cloture debate on the Defense bill, meaning the Senate will remain in session until Saturday morning’s final passage vote on that measure.

Reid is also still struggling to get all 60 of his Democratic colleagues to agree to a deal on the health care bill, which must be struck by Saturday evening if he is to schedule votes on that bill in time to meet his goal of a final passage vote at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Even Mother Nature seems set on making Reid’s life difficult. The National Weather Service is predicting a blizzard that may drop up to a foot of snow on the nation’s capital — a region renowned for its inability to handle major snow events — between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, which could make it impossible for Reid to get Senators to the Capitol.