Senate Democrats Push Health Package Forward

Posted December 21, 2009 at 12:22am

Updated: 7:48 a.m.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cleared a major hurdle after midnight Sunday when all 60 Members of the Democratic Conference agreed to advance an $871 billion health care reform package.

Senators voted 60-40 to invoke cloture or beat back a GOP filibuster of the manager’s amendment to the bill. The move clears the way for passage of the massive reform measure by Christmas.

Reid and the Democrats, who only closed ranks Saturday when Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) accepted compromise language on abortion and Medicaid, now proceed to a 7 a.m. Tuesday vote to end debate on the substitute amendment to the $871 billion health care package. The cloture vote on the manager’s amendment began at 1 a.m. Monday, with all 40 Republicans voting to continue the debate.

Reid’s goal of clearing the bill before Christmas and Republican hopes of derailing passage have combined to force three cloture votes, including late-night and early-morning roll calls, because of Senate rules mandating 30 hours of sequential debate time prior to each cloture vote. At present, the third cloture vote, on the underlying bill, will likely occur Wednesday afternoon, with the vote on final passage set for Christmas Eve night.

The vote to end debate on the manager’s amendment occurred in the middle of the night on the East Coast as the full Senate was on the floor and Senators were seated at their desks, as requested by Reid. The Senate was in session Sunday for more than 10 hours, adjourning at 11:30 p.m. and reconvening at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

Sunday’s debate featured several Republican attempts to set aside the manager’s amendment and proceed to a debate on alternative GOP proposals. But the dilatory maneuvers, which were unanimous-consent requests, never had a realistic chance of succeeding and were quickly squashed by Democratic objections.

White House officials were on hand for the vote, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy-Ann DeParle, President Barack Obama’s top health care adviser.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the vote “one of the most consequential votes any of us will take— and excoriated Democrats, accusing them of attempting to force through the legislation “in the dead of night— — a line that drew angry murmurs from Democrats.

“If the people who wrote this bill were proud, they wouldn’t be forcing this vote in the dead of night,— McConnell said, charging that “when this started a year ago, few would have thought it would end this way. With a couple of cheap deals and a rushed vote at one o’clock in the morning.—

McConnell also made one last plea to his Democratic colleagues to break ranks with the majority, saying, “All it takes is one. All it takes is one. One can stop it. Or everyone will own it.—

But with the chamber quickly filling, Reid offered an emotional rebuttal, repeatedly pointing to letters from constituents who do not have health care and other insurance horror stories to blunt McConnell’s appeals and attacks. “When someone tells me their only hope is to die, I think that’s something we should look at. … I cannot look away. I cannot possibly do nothing,— Reid said.

Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — a longtime advocate of health care reform — was in the Senate for the historic vote. Following the Democrats’ victory, she was greeted by Reid and Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“He’s smiling; this is a big step,— Kennedy said of her late husband, who died in August after a long battle with brain cancer.

Schumer called the vote a vindication of Reid’s leadership and predicted that the public would come to support the legislation after the critiques leveled at the bill by Republicans fail to materialize.

“The die is cast. It’s done,— a jubilant Schumer said, adding jokingly that “Harry’s almost going to have a drink.—

Reid, a devout Mormon, abstains from alcohol.

John Stanton contributed to this report.