Senate Democrats win key vote on health bill

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Senate leaders rallied jittery moderate Democrats to vote Saturday for moving the health care overhaul to a full floor debate, setting up weeks of skirmishes over touchy subjects - ranging from abortion to access for illegal immigrants - and its hefty price tag, which challenge the fate of President Obama’s ambitious goal.

The three Democratic senators who helped the measure clear a significant procedural hurdle in a tight vote Saturday night made clear that their support didn’t ensure their backing of the landmark measure in the future.

One of the biggest obstacles for Democratic leaders eager to push the bill forward is a government-run public insurance plan - a provision that liberal Democrats say is essential but one that many moderates are reluctant to accept.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who waited until Saturday afternoon to disclose her ‘yes’ vote, said she wouldn’t help move the bill past the next stage of debate if a public option remains part of the legislation.

“Rather than create an entirely new government-run health care plan to compete with private insurers, I support health insurance reform that focuses on changing the rules of our existing employer-based private health insurance system,” the Arkansas Democrat said.

“We should change the current rules that permit insurance companies to bully their customers and cherry-pick healthy patients, so we can force them to compete with each other.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who voted to move the bill forward, also has threatened to block the legislation if it includes a public option.

“[The public-option provision] is kind of an eleventh-hour addition to a debate that’s gone on for decades,” Mr. Lieberman said moments after the vote. “I really think part of the reason why it’s in there is to offer something to people who really want a single-payer system - a totally government-run system. But I think that would be a terrible idea for our country.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, assured moderates in his caucus that he will allow an amendment to remove the controversial public insurance plan to get a vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate’s 58 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them all voted “yes” to support the procedural measure, which needed 60 votes to pass.

All of the 39 Republicans present for the vote rejected the measure. Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, was the lone no-show in the 100-member body.

The rare weekend roll call was the first of at least two procedural votes that will require support from 60 lawmakers. Republicans have promised to oppose the bill unless significant changes are made, meaning Democrats don’t have any room for rebellion.

Republican leaders had tried to put additional pressure on the vote - normally, just a procedural measure - by arguing that the legislation is far too flawed to even try to repair through floor amendments.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said the Democrats’ bill was “scaring the daylights out of Americans.”

“This bill is historic in its arrogance - arrogance that we in Congress are wise enough to take this complex health system that is 16 percent of our economy and serves 300 million Americans and think we can write a 2,000-page bill and change it all - all at once,” he said.

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