Senate votes down GOP plan to strip Medicare cuts from bill

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

Senate Republicans lost their first major challenge to a Democratic plan to overhaul the health-care system, as the chamber voted Thursday to reject a GOP proposal to strip the package of nearly $500 billion in Medicare cuts, its most important source of financing.

On a vote of 58 to 42, the Senate defeated an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have sent the bill back to committee with orders to remove the spending cuts. The amendment effectively would have forced Democrats back to the drawing board after months of negotiations to craft a measure that would extend coverage to 30 million additional Americans without increasing budget deficits.

The Senate also approved an amendment that would guarantee access to mammograms for women younger than 50, as it cast its first votes on proposed changes to the far-reaching health-care package.

Though debate officially opened Monday, progress has been hampered by disagreements between the two parties over the terms of negotiation and the timing of votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) still hopes to hold a vote on final passage before senators adjourn for the holidays, however, and on Thursday he told them to plan on working this weekend.

Of four amendments considered Thursday, McCain's was the most potentially damaging. Medicare, the government health program for people age 65 and older, is hugely popular, and seniors are already skeptical about the benefits of reform.

The health-care bill would slow Medicare spending by about 5 percent over the next decade, and Republicans said that would decimate the program in order to finance insurance subsidies for younger people.

Democrats, backed by the AARP and other major organizations representing seniors, argued that the cuts would extend the life of Medicare by several years without reducing guaranteed benefits or increasing co-payments.

Two Democrats, Ben Nelson of (Neb.) and James Webb (Va.), voted with all 40 Republicans to approve the amendment. Nelson is among the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus; Webb is a longtime supporter of the Medicare Advantage program, which would take a big hit under the legislation.

Earlier in the day, the Senate voted to ensure that women younger than 50 could obtain mammograms, despite a recent controversial recommendation by a government task force, and to prevent insurance companies from charging co-payments for that and other preventive tests for women.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), passed on a vote of 61 to 39.

"We are saying goodbye to an era when simply being a woman is treated as a preexisting condition," Mikulski said.

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