By Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; A03
Senate Republicans said Thursday that they would try to filibuster a massive Pentagon bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unusual move that several acknowledged was an effort to delay President Obama's health-care legislation.
Late into the night, Democrats emerged from a huddle confident that they would muster the 60 votes needed to thwart the GOP effort at blocking the military spending bill as an antiwar liberal said he would set aside his reservations and support choking off the filibuster in order to keep the chamber on a timeline of holding a final health-care vote before Christmas. The vote on the defense spending bill was to occur after 1 a.m. Friday, too late for this edition.
The maneuvering occurred on a day when Democrats were still desperately trying to round up a 60th vote on the health-care legislation, as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) rejected an abortion compromise aimed at bringing him on board. Nelson, the last holdout in the Democratic caucus and the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by White House officials, has said he would not support the package unless it explicitly bars the use of federal funds for abortion services.
If Nelson's support can be secured over the weekend, Democrats are hopeful that they will be able to begin clearing the parliamentary hurdles that would allow final passage of their version of the health-care legislation by Christmas Eve. That would meet their self-imposed deadline to pass the legislation and begin a negotiation with House Democrats to craft a final version to send to the president's desk.
Republicans have said their goal is to block the legislation and force Senate Democrats to go home and face their constituents, hoping for some supporters of the legislation to return after New Year's too fearful to back the legislation.
Part of that effort played out on the $626 billion spending bill for the Defense Department. If the filibuster on the defense bill succeeded, Democrats would have to scramble to find a way to fund the military operations because a stopgap funding measure expires at midnight Friday. Such an effort might have distracted from the health-care legislation for a day or two, disrupting the very tight timeline on health care.
"I don't want health care," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said in explaining his support of a filibuster. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee, which crafted the Pentagon funding bill.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and Christopher "Kit" Bond (Mo.) admitted they support the spending bill but acknowledged they were considering opposing it because of the health-care debate.
Democrats were furious. They believed they had a deal with Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, to support the bill, but by Thursday night Cochran was saying he was unsure how he would vote.
"They are prepared to jeopardize funding for troops at war," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday evening. "If Democrats did that, there would be cries of treason."
Anticipating no GOP votes, Democrats were required to deliver all 60 members of the caucus, something they were not expecting to have to do early in the day. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is a staunch opponent of the war and usually refuses to support even procedural votes on legislation funding Iraq and Afghanistan efforts. At the closed-door meeting Thursday evening, Feingold delivered a stirring talk to Democrats that indicated he would vote with them, leading to a round of applause that could be heard outside the room.
"I am not going to be part of a partisan and cynical effort to delay passage of the defense bill in order to block the Senate from considering health care reform," he said in a statement later. After voting to cut off the filibuster, Feingold expects to vote no on the final passage of the $626 billion spending bill for the Pentagon, a vote that will only require 51 votes to succeed.
That final vote on defense will likely come Saturday morning, clearing the way for Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to return to the health-care debate. As those health-care talks continue, the most-closely-watched man in the Senate will be Nelson.
Nelson has been pressing for the Senate bill to include a provision contained in the health bill the House approved last month that would prohibit recipients of federal subsidies from using the money to buy insurance policies that include abortion coverage. Abortion rights advocates are strongly opposed to that provision, saying it would give insurers a strong incentive to abandon abortion coverage.
On Wednesday, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), an abortion opponent who is trying to mediate the dispute, proposed a compromise that would more clearly segregate public and private funds in the new insurance exchanges for individuals who do not have access to affordable coverage through an employer. Under the bill, people who earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for government subsidies to purchase insurance on the exchanges.
Casey also offered new ideas for reducing the number of abortions, including a temporary $1,000 increase in the tax credit for adoptive parents and a new federal fund to assist teenagers, college students or victims of domestic violence who are pregnant and without resources. The fund would provide $250 million over the next decade to help with housing, baby supplies and other needs if the pregnant person chose to keep the child.
In a statement issued Thursday, Nelson praised those provisions but said the proposal was "not sufficient" to win his vote.
"The compromise adds important new initiatives addressing teen pregnancy and tax credits to help with adoptions," Nelson said. "These are valuable improvements that will make a positive difference and promote life. But as it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient."
Earlier Thursday, in an interview with a Nebraska radio station, Nelson said even if the abortion issue were resolved, he still could not support the $848 billion package, complaining that the plan to cover more than 30 million additional Americans calls for dramatically expanding Medicaid, which is partially funded by the states. The Medicaid expansion would "create an underfunded federal mandate for the state of Nebraska," Nelson said, arguing that states should be permitted to "opt out" of that idea and find other ways to offer coverage to their poorest residents.