WASHINGTON-Democrats achieved a major Senate victory Saturday night in their yearlong push to overhaul the nation's healthcare system, as all 60 Senate Democrats voted in support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's healthcare measure.
In what was a strictly partisan 60 to 39 vote, lawmakers Saturday night agreed to move forward with debate on the 2,074-page bill that Reid unveiled on Wednesday. Republican Sen. George Voinovich was the only senator not to cast a vote, choosing to remain home in Ohio.
The procedural vote, which required 60 senators to succeed under Senate rules, came after 10 hours of rare Saturday debate on the Senate floor. Democrats have cast the measure as the $848 billion answer to the nation's rising healthcare costs. While Republicans have warned that the bill would unleash an unwieldy federal bureaucracy upon the nation's medical system.
Expect to hear these arguments repeated in the coming weeks: After a Thanksgiving break, the Senate will resume debate on the bill in December with Democrats expected to push hard for a final vote on the legislation before Christmas. Coupled with the already-approved healthcare legislation in the House, Saturday's Senate vote outcome means that momentum is now on the side of the Democrats.
"Senators who support this bill have a lot of explaining to do," warned Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who called the bill a budget-busting monstrosity. "Americans know that a vote to proceed, to get on this bill, is a vote for higher premiums, higher taxes, and massive cuts to Medicare."
But Reid started the day's debate by downplaying the significance of the Saturday's showdown: "All we're asking today is to have a debate on it. I mean, why would anyone be afraid in supposedly the greatest debating society in the world to debate healthcare? What are they afraid of?"
This argument seemed to work on two moderate Democrats who had yet to announce how they would vote on the motion before Saturday: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. But by early afternoon the two senators had taken to the Senate floor to announce their support, draining most of the day's drama.
Both Landrieu and Lincoln qualified their decisions:
"Much more work needs to be done," said Landrieu.
"Although I don't agree with everything in this bill, I have concluded that I believe it is more important that we begin this debate to improve our nation's healthcare system for all Americans rather than just simply drop the issue and walk away," added Lincoln.
Both Landrieu and Lincoln bashed the government-run public insurance option found in the bill. Another holdout, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who signaled his support for moving forward on Friday, remains concerned with the bill's abortion provisions. Democrats will have to continue to entice these moderate fence-sitters before a final vote on the bill.
The legislation mandates that both individuals carry insurance and employers offer insurance or face penalties. It unleashes complex federal regulations on the nation's healthcare system, cuts Medicare by $465 billion, and raises taxes by $493 billion.
Republicans spent Saturday warning that a motion to precede to the debate likely means the bill would eventually pass. They cited a Congressional Research Service report that found in the past decade 97 percent of bills subject to a 60-vote threshold to begin debate eventually passed.
Republicans, often lifting bundled copies of the bill for dramatic effect as if it were a dumbbell, spent Saturday questioning the cost of the bill and the new taxes it will introduce. They also warned that the bill's expansion of individuals eligible for Medicaid would create new unfunded mandates that could cripple states trying to cover the citizens added to government subsidy roles.
Seemingly not wanting to be in the same room together, Republicans and Democrats took turns making their arguments on the Senate floor, with each party getting alternating hours.
Republicans devoted one of their allotted hours to the abortion question. The Senate bill mandates that at least one health plan in the state insurance exchanges proposed in the bill offer elective abortion coverage. This is less restrictive than the House bill and goes beyond current federal health programs that do not require the coverage of elective abortion.
"This is a clear departure from current law," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who cited President Barack Obama's September pledge to Congress that the plan would not change current abortion restrictions. "Abortion is very much in this healthcare bill. The federal government should not go down this road."