Senators moving toward final action on health bill; Democrats jubilant with outcome assured

By Erica Werner, AP
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Senate pushes toward passage of health bill

WASHINGTON — Jubilant Democrats are ready to push President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul past one last 60-vote hurdle to final Christmas Eve passage, and Republicans concede they’re powerless to stop it.

“It looks obvious that that’s going to happen,” conceded Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, after Democrats triumphed on the second of three 60-vote procedural tallies over unanimous GOP opposition.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs declared, “Health care reform is not a matter of if, health care reform now is a matter of when.”

Obama himself said the Senate legislation accomplishes 95 percent of what he wanted. “Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill,” the president told The Washington Post.

The third procedural vote comes Wednesday afternoon, when Democrats will have to put up 60 votes for the last time to cut off debate on the legislation. Democrats are also expected to turn back points of order raised against the bill by Republicans, including one questioning the constitutionality of requiring most every American to buy health insurance. Final passage on the sweeping bill, which will extend health coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans, is set for 8 a.m. Thursday, Christmas Eve.

That’s 11 hours earlier than originally scheduled, thanks to a deal struck Tuesday between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Republicans had been threatening to use all the time available to them, which would have kept the Senate in session late into the night before Christmas. But bad weather is forecast for later in the week, senators and aides are eager to get home to their families, and the outcome is preordained after Reid struck the final deals over the weekend to get his 58 Democrats and two independents in line.

Unable to prevent passage of the landmark legislation, Republicans are stepping up their criticism of it, focusing in on the special deals some senators got.

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, a candidate for governor, said he and his counterparts in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota, Texas and Washington state — all Republicans — are jointly taking a look at whether the special provisions for Nebraska and other states are constitutional. The federal government is picking up the full tab for an expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska, where conservative Sen. Ben Nelson provided Democrats their crucial 60th vote.

“These negotiations on their face appear to be a form of vote-buying paid for by taxpayers,” McMaster said.

Nelson vigorously defended the provision Tuesday, contending he didn’t seek any special carve-out for Nebraska and hoped all states would get the same help.

Republicans are just seeking “an opportunity to mislead and distort,” Nelson contended.

Differences between the House and Senate bills would still have to be worked out, including stricter abortion provisions and an income tax hike on high-earning Americans, both in the House bill. But the bills have much in common. Each costs around $1 trillion over 10 years and installs new requirements for nearly all Americans to buy insurance, providing subsidies to help lower-income people do so. They’re paid for by a combination of tax and fee increases and cuts in projected Medicare spending.

Unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions would be banned, and uninsured or self-employed Americans would shop for insurance in new marketplaces called exchanges.

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