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Senate Votes to Move the Health Care Debate Forward

November 21, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

After 23 hours of debate, the Senate on Saturday evening voted to begin a formal debate of the Democrats’ health care reform bill. The vote, which was on a motion to end a Republican filibuster of bringing the bill to the floor, was approved with no votes to spare.

The motion required a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes, to pass, which is exactly the number of seats Democrats hold in the Senate. With no Republicans voting in favor, Democrats had to hold their every member of their caucus together. The Democrats are notoriously bad at maintaining the party line, and a handful of moderates in the party are have already said they will join a Republican filibuster later on if the bill is not significantly altered. But somehow they pulled it off. It’s a significant victory for Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and the Obama Administration, but it does not mean that they will ultimately be able to pass the bill.

Read, comment and link to the Senate health care bill on OpenCongress: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act>>

The Democrats’ health care bill has been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $848 billion and reduce the deficit by $130 over a ten year period. It would expand health coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans. Three to four million of the newly insured individuals would be covered by a new government-run insurance plan (a.k.a the public option). The bill would require all individuals to have health insurance, and provides $447 billion to help low and moderate-income people afford plans. It would also ban many of the most egregious health industry practices, like dropping patients that get sick and denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Passage of tonight’s vote was secured earlier in the day when two crucial centrist Democrats — Lincoln of Arkansas and Landrieu of Louisiana — announced that they would vote to bring the bill the bill to the floor. But both reiterated their objections to the public option included in the bill. “I am opposed to a new government administered public health care plan as a part of comprehensive health care reform, and I will not vote in favor of the proposal that has been introduced by Leader Reid as it is written,”

Sen. Lincoln said on the Senate floor. Senator Landrieu expressed a similar sentiment. “My vote today to move forward on this important debate should in no way be construed by the supporters of this current framework as an indication of how I might vote as this debate comes to an end,” she said.

When the Senate returns from Thanksgiving recess on November 30th they will take up their health care reform bill as a substitute amendment to an unrelated House bill, H.R. 3590. In order to begin the amendment process, they will have to vote to break another Republican filibuster of adopting the substitute amendment. The Democrats will need 60 votes for that, but tonight’s vote indicates that the votes will be there.

The amendment process could drag on for weeks. Dozens of amendments from both parties will be voted on, and most of them will be filibustered and require 60 votes. Senate Democrats are hoping to have a vote on final passage of the health care bill before they leave for Christmas break, but that timeline is likely to slip into 2010.

“The battle has just begun,” declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY] on Saturday afternoon.

If and when the Senate approves a health care bill, it will go to a conference committee to be reconciled with the version passed by the House. The final version that the conference committee — known as “report” — produces will have to be approved once again by both the Senate and the House before it can be sent to President Obama to be signed into law. The conference committee report will not be open to more amendments, but it will be subject to a filibuster in the Senate and require 60 votes for passage.

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