Senate Democrats united today to overcome a Republican filibuster and officially move a health-care overhaul bill to the Senate floor, clearing the way for weeks more debate on their largest major domestic policy initiative and the most ambitious attempt at health care reform in generations.
In a rare weekend vote, with Senators sitting in their assigned seats to signify the importance of the moment, Democrats secured help from nervous moderate members and reached the 60 votes they needed to hold off a procedural roadblock set up by Republicans.
All 58 Democrats and two independents voted to break the filibuster on the bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released Wednesday night. The Nevada Democrat took parts of proposals passed earlier this year through two congressional committees to build the sweeping $848 billion proposal.
The Republicans mustered 39 votes. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, did not vote.
Earlier in the day, it appeared that the bill would get the votes it needed when Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark, who had been the final Democratic holdout, said she would vote with the rest of her party.
"I have concluded that I believe it is more important that we begin this debate to improve our nation's health care system for all Americans rather than just simply drop the issue and walk away. That is not what people sent us here to do," Lincoln said.
But her speech on the Senate floor, while it assured a small victory for Democrats, also highlighted the real divides among Democrats that threaten their efforts to overhaul health care in the future.
"Let me be perfectly clear, I am opposed to a new government-run insurance option," she said.
Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection campaign in 2010, criticized both Republicans and liberal political groups for trying to influence her position.
"I will not allow my decision on this vote to be dictated by pressure from my political opponents, nor the liberal interest groups from outside Arkansas that threaten me with their money and their political opposition," she said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana also announced her support for the procedural motion today and she defended her role in securing a provision in the bill that provides states that have suffered extreme natural disasters extra help in paying for its share of Medicaid services.
Her state, after Hurricane Katrina, is the only one that would currently qualify for the extra help.
But Landrieu, far from distancing herself from it, said it is her job as a Louisiana senator to secure federal money for Louisiana. Further, she said the provision will benefit Louisiana with $300 million, not the $100 million estimated by CBO.
"I am not going to be defensive about asking for help in this situation. And it's not a $100 million fix, it's a $300 million fix," she said.
She clarified that her vote was not an endorsement of Reid's bill and said she might ultimately vote against the legislation if it is not changed during the Senate floor debate.
Landrieu said wants to see the bill changed to give more help to small business owners, arguing that many of the reforms in the bill would not take place until 2014 and, most importantly, that she opposes the framework of the public health insurance option in Reid's bill.