Democrats Celebrate, but Health Debate Isn’t Over

Posted December 24, 2009 at 9:01am

Senate Democrats celebrated a historic victory on health care reform on Thursday — and their leaders pledged to begin discussions next week with House Democrats on reconciling their two bills.Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) $871 billion health care package cleared the Senate early Thursday morning on a party-line 60-39 vote, kicking off the next phase in President Barack Obama’s battle to sign major reform into law.Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said conversations with his House counterparts would occur by telephone, adding that a decision on whether to convene a formal conference committee has yet to be made.“It’s going to be a combination,— Baucus told reporters following the Senate vote, when asked whether negotiations with the House would occur at the leadership level only, or through a conference committee. Baucus said he expects the final bill to be “quite close to the Senate bill, because we have to get 60 votes.—All Senate Republicans voted “no— on the health bill, save for absent Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who voted against the measure during a key cloture vote earlier this week and who is retiring next year.Democrats, battered in public opinion polls over the past several weeks, predicted that the tide would turn now that the Senate legislation has passed.Senate Democratic leaders relished their triumph, months in the making and achieved only after intense intraparty wrangling to craft a bill palatable to the majority’s liberal and moderate wings.During a post-vote press conference in which they took no questions, Reid, Baucus, Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (Conn.) congratulated each other, while saying the real winners are the American people.Democratic Senators repeatedly invoked the legacy of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who served as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and championed health care reform for decades. Kennedy died last summer, but his widow, Vicki Kennedy, was present in the Senate gallery during the final vote.“This is for my friend, Ted Kennedy,— Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va) said on the floor, as he cast his “aye— vote.“This is an amazing accomplishment. It would be under ordinary times. It’s even more amazing under extraordinary times,— Schumer said during the news conference. “This is a happy day. [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] said on the floor that we’re going to go home and hear our constituents rail against this bill. I don’t believe that. I believe that the negativity that Leader McConnell and others have continually displayed on the floor has peaked. And now when people learn what’s actually in the bill, and all the good it does, it is going to become more and more popular.—Republicans chose not to hold a formal news conference following Thursday morning’s votes, and most GOP Members immediately fled the Capitol to head home for Christmas. But Republicans were not conceding defeat.Senate Republicans believe the potential for difficult House-Senate negotiations could trip up the legislation. In fact, the Democrats have some decisions to make. The House bill includes a public insurance option; the Senate bill does not. The House bill has stronger abortion language than the Senate bill, and each bill would implement new taxes opposed by the other chamber.Senate Republicans note that Members have not been home in nearly a month, during which time public opinion polls have shown increasing dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ health care agenda. The holiday recess, they argue, could change some minds.The GOP also believes some of the special deals, including on Medicaid funding, made to secure the support of particular Senators could sour the public on health care reform even further.“This has got a long way to go before this thing is a done deal,— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Wednesday, after the Democrats cleared their final procedural hurdle to set up final passage. “It’s been a miracle, frankly, that with only 40, that we find ourselves where we are. But I think we’ve been able to effectively make our points. The American people are with us.—House Democratic leaders quickly congratulated the Senate for passing the bill.But several liberal Democrats, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), have ripped the lack of a public option and have been demanding an assortment of changes that would increase affordability for the middle class.And anti-abortion-rights Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) have rejected the Senate’s abortion compromise, while Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are upset with how the Senate bill treats immigrants. Still other Democrats are demanding that a new tax on high-cost insurance plans be scaled back.However, the last two Senators to back the bill, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), reiterated their warnings that the bill cannot change much in negotiations with the House without endangering their votes for cloture on the conference report, which is subject to a filibuster.“This has been put together very carefully,— Nelson said following final passage. “But the agreement is very tentative in the sense that the next cloture vote is the vote.—Lieberman called the 60 votes for the bill “precariously balanced— and warned against adding too much to the price tag in an effort to win over House Members upset about policy provisions in the Senate bill.“Money is a way to soothe differences of opinion, but it’s not our money, it’s the public’s money, it’s the taxpayers’ money,— he said. “The more you add to the pricetag the harder it’s going to be.—John Stanton contributed to this report.