End in Sight: Senate Prepares to Vote on Health Care Bill Christmas Eve

Democratic leaders clear the way for a final Senate vote.

December 23, 2009, 10:57 AM

Dec. 23, 2009— -- Senate Democrats today cleared the final procedural hurdle on the way to passage of their health care bill.

By a majority vote -- the last needed to end debate on the health care legislation -- Democrats defeated a series of points of orders raised by Republicans, including one that questioned whether the requirement for all Americans to purchase health insurance was constitutional.

"Everyone... should be alarmed," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor while raising a point of order. "I feel duty-bound to question the constitutionality of this bill."

South Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Henry McMaster, a Republican, said he and his counterparts in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota, Texas and Washington state will investigate whether the special provisions for Nebraska and other states that are included in the Senate health care bill are constitutional.

Nebraska, Florida, Vermont and several other states got concessions in what many Republicans say was a move by the Democratic leadership to buy the support of skeptical senators from those states.

Republican senators initially pledged to fight the health care bill until the last minute. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., struck a deal with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- much to the chagrin of some GOP groups -- to give up 12 hours of debate, putting the vote at 7 a.m. Thursday, Christmas Eve.

"It is now only hours until this Senate will pass meaningful health care reform," said Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. "It has been a long time coming. ... I thank God that I have lived to see this day."

Senate GOP leaders have conceded defeat but continued today their attack on the partisan health care bill.

Republicans appeared before reporters with their own cost assessment of the bill, charging that it would add an extra $1 trillion to the budget deficit even though the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said it would reduce the deficit by $132 billion over ten years.

"What we've seen is a colossal manipulation of the accounting scores of CBO and CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services]," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said at a news conference today. "If a private company had done this, a president of a private company had proposed such a bogus scoring system, they'd be going to jail."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a medical doctor, also assailed the Democrats' plan on today's "Top Line."

"It would be a historic mistake for this country if this is what happens to health care," Barrasso said. "The message [for Republicans next year] should be, the debt is the threat."

Even though the Senate health care bill does not have the bipartisan support President Obama had called for, he threw his full support behind it in an interview with the Washington Post, saying he is "not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved.

"Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill," the president said.

House and Senate Health Care Bills Have Significant Differences

Obama irked some of his liberal base, however, by detaching himself from the public option -- a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers -- telling the newspaper, "I didn't campaign on the public option."

The president had said several times during his campaign and afterward that he would establish a new national health insurance plan for the uninsured.

"Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything I want? Of course not," Obama told the Washington Post. "But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government."

Public option will be a thorny issue in the next step, when the Senate bill is merged with the House bill in the conference committee. The House health care legislation, which passed last month, includes a public option, with several House Democrats saying they are unable to support a bill that does not include that plan.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., today argued that despite the lack of a public option, or a Medicare expansion -- as the Senate had once proposed -- the bill provides a stepping stone for changes in the future.

"I was for the expansion of Medicare, allowing younger people to buy in," Boxer said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today. "And we can fix that in the future."

The main sticking point, however, is expected to be abortion. The House health care bill contains more restrictive language on abortion than the Senate legislation, and anti-abortion Democrats are expected to put up a fight to keep the language in the House bill.

Some House Democrats are also unhappy with the concessions that have been provided to Senate Democrats. "It's unacceptable," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., told ABC News.

Stupak, who introduced the tough abortion language in the House bill, said he will not vote for the Senate bill regardless of the abortion language.

"I think it sends a bad message," he said.

Despite the challenges of reconciliation, Democratic leaders are confident they can iron out their differences in the conference committee in January. The House returns Jan. 12, the Senate Jan. 19.

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