- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

With their biggest hurdle behind them, Senate Democrats said Monday they’re confident they will be able to pass their health care reform bill, President Obama’s chief legislative priority, sometime late on Christmas Eve.

The first procedural vote — 60-40 along party lines with no room for error — was held shortly after midnight on Monday. Democrats say there is no chance any of their 60 will defect on the next procedural votes, scheduled for Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon.

“The die is cast,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said shortly after the vote. “It’s done.”

President Obama Monday hailed the Senate vote to block a Republican filibuster as “a big victory for the American people.”

“By standing up to the special interests — who’ve prevented reform for decades, and who are furiously lobbying against it now — the Senate has moved us closer to reform that makes a tremendous difference,” Mr. Obama said.

But during the day Monday, Senate Democrats found themselves having to defend a series of special pet projects and policies added to the bill in the days just before the first vote.

For instance, federal taxpayers will pay for Nebraska’s expansion of its Medicaid program, while other states will have to pay their own way. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat who represents the state, was the pivotal 60th lawmaker to commit to vote for the bill.

The legislation also has provisions that favor Vermont, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Michigan, as well as a grant program that Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd inserted with hopes it would benefit his home state of Connecticut.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the special allowances are just part of the legislating process and defended the lawmakers who asked for them.

“It’s the art of compromise,” the Nevada Democrat told reporters. “I don’t know that there’s a senator who doesn’t have something in this bill that’s important to them. And if they don’t have something in it that’s important to them, it doesn’t speak well of them.”

But Republicans over the weekend denounced the last-minute insertions as blatant “vote-buying.”

“This process is not legislating; this process is corruption,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. “It’s a shame the only way we can come to a consensus in this country is to buy votes.”

If the bill passes the Senate this week, as expected, it still must be merged with the House’s reform bill. The House bill has a government-created “public” insurance plan and restrictions on abortion funding that were dropped or modified in the Senate bill, and both issues will have to be resolved while maintaining support in both chambers.

There are a number of moderate Democrats in the Senate, such as Mr. Nelson and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, who warned that they won’t support the bill if it is changed significantly from the current Senate version. But many House members don’t like everything in the Senate plan, promising some fireworks in the upcoming conference to draft a compromise bill.

Many Senate Democrats said ahead of the vote that the legislation isn’t perfect - some wanted the public insurance plan, while others wanted more cost-cutting measures — but they united in the hopes of passing an overall bill that provides insurance coverage to tens of millions more Americans.

Both supporters and opponents called the vote one of the most significant in recent Senate history. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the vote a “pivotal point in the decades-long request to pass comprehensive health care reform.”

Republicans in turn united in opposition to the final bill over concerns that it would raise taxes and insurance premiums, cut Medicare funding and put the government between doctors and patients. They had hoped to block or stall the vote, but ran out of procedural options in the closing days.

“History in our future generations will judge us on this vote,” warned Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, on the Senate floor.

He labeled the vote as one “that will fundamentally change the American landscape for generations to come and restructure one-sixth of our American economy. … Make no mistake, our actions on this vote will not be without consequences.”

Backers say the legislation will extend coverage to 31 million new Americans, curb insurance company abuses, give low- and middle-income Americans tax credits to help them buy coverage and establish an independent board to keep Medicare solvent.

In the search for compromise to reach 60 votes, the bill doesn’t have either the public insurance plan or the alternative Medicare expansion for which many liberal Democrats had been hoping.

The votes are being held at odd times — from the middle of the night to just after dawn — because Senate rules require at least one calendar day and an hour between the time the so-called “cloture” vote is requested and when it is held. Democrats could have postponed the votes until normal business hours, but that would have pushed the final vote for passage to Christmas Day.