Monday, December 21, 2009
Unless something unexpected happens, the U.S. Senate will pass its version of a health care bill for President Obama in time for Christmas.
The measure overcame by far its biggest hurdle in the wee hours of Monday morning. Every member of the Senate Democratic caucus made it to the Capitol to cast his or her critical vote — just hours after the biggest December snowstorm in Washington history — to break a Republican filibuster on the bill.
The early morning vote was the first of three times Democrats will need to muster all 60 members of their caucus to get the bill passed over unanimous Republican objections. Under Senate rules, each of those votes must be separated by 30 hours. In order to get lawmakers and their staffs out by Christmas Eve, the first of the three was set for just after 1 a.m.
As the pivotal vote neared, Democrats such as Dick Durbin of Illinois talked about the historic nature of the measure they hope to pass in the coming days: "As Franklin Roosevelt did with Social Security, as Lyndon Johnson did with Medicare, Barack Obama with health reform has challenged this Congress not to ignore a problem which has haunted the presidencies of seven great men who have previously served in that office."
But earlier in the day, the rhetoric inside the Senate was as hot as the blizzard had left things cold outside.
Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who has been among the most outspoken critics of the measure, raised Democratic hackles with this comment: "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray."
Coburn's comment was thought to allude to 92-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who has not been in the best of health.
But Democrats were ready with some hot rhetoric of their own. Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse delivered a blistering broadside against the GOP, accusing members of being "desperate to break this president."
"The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militias and Aryan support groups, it is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist," Whitehouse said.
Republicans were particularly outraged by the subject of the vote — a 383-page amendment offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with all of the last-minute changes needed to nail down the remaining Democratic holdout votes.
The Reid amendment represents everything that Americans hate about Washington right now — Chicago-style back-room buy offs at the expense of the American taxpayers," said Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.
Indeed, Hatch and his fellow Republicans singled out for special criticism Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Not only did Nelson insist on stronger language to restrict federal abortion funding, but he also got preferential treatment for his state.
"Who will pay for these special deals?" Hatch asked. "Well, the answer is simple: every other state in the union, including my home state of Utah."
Democrats, such as Iowa's Tom Harkin, said Republicans have been disingenuous in claiming that they need more time to study the bill: "This floor debate is not about offering amendments to improve the bill; it's not about allowing more time to fully read it and understand the bill. That's nonsense. All the other side wants to do is kill this bill. Period."
And like many of his more liberal colleagues, Harkin acknowledged that while the bill isn't everything he'd like it to be, it's better than not having a bill at all.
"It's not like the 10 commandments carved in stone; it's a bill, a law. Laws change. But what we can do is lay down a good start toward bringing people into a health insurance system, stopping some of the most horrible practices of the health insurance industry."
Even without a government-run public option, which was jettisoned two weeks ago, or a Medicare buy-in, dropped last week, liberals seem to be coalescing around the measure.
The final amendment included several sweeteners for liberals, including more restrictions on the insurance industry.
Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who last week said the Senate bill should be killed, had softened his stance significantly by his appearance Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.
"This bill is improved over the last couple of weeks. I would let this thing go to conference committee and let's see if we can fix it some more."
First, however, senators will need to vote twice more before it can formally pass the Senate.