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Senate Democrats block GOP filibuster

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By Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 18, 2009; 2:50 AM

Senate Republicans failed early Friday in their bid to filibuster a massive Pentagon bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unusual move designed to delay President Obama's health-care legislation.

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On a 63 to 33 vote, Democrats cleared a key hurdle that should allow them to approve the must-pass military spending bill Saturday and return to the health-care debate. After years of criticizing Democrats for not supporting the troops, just three Republicans supported the military funding.

The maneuvering came as Democrats were still trying to secure a crucial vote on the health-care legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the last holdout in the Democratic caucus and the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by White House officials, rejected an abortion compromise aimed at bringing him on board. Nelson has said he would not support the package unless it explicitly bars use of federal money for abortion services.

If Nelson's support can be locked up by Saturday, Democrats are hopeful that they will be able to begin clearing the parliamentary hurdles that would allow final passage of their version of the legislation by Christmas Eve. That would meet their self-imposed deadline to begin negotiating with House Democrats to craft a final version of the bill to send to the president early next year.

Republicans have said their goal is to delay the bill and force Senate Democrats to go home and face their constituents, hoping for some supporters of the measure to return after New Year's too fearful to back the legislation.

If the filibuster on the $626 billion defense bill had succeeded, Democrats would have had to scramble to find a way to fund the military operations, because a stopgap funding measure for the Pentagon will expire at midnight Friday. Such an effort to come up with another stopgap defense bill might have disrupted the very tight timeline on health care.

Unusual position

Republicans have provided the backbone of support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have praised Obama's troop increase in Afghanistan. When the House considered the same legislation Wednesday, 164 of the 175 Republicans present voted for it, so the Senate GOP plan to oppose defense spending Friday morning put them in an unusual position.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cited the roughly 1,800 earmarks in the bill worth $4.2 billion in explaining his opposition, but most others were blunt in their rational for opposing the military legislation.

"I don't want health care," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said Thursday evening.

Taking the floor as the new day's session began just past midnight, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) laid out what appeared to be a case to filibuster the defense bill. "The bill that is before us is not what is driving, actually, the timing of this vote at 12:15 in the morning on Friday. I think that what is driving it is health care," Hutchison said.

An hour later, Hutchison joined Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe as the only Republican votes for the defense bill. But their support came only after waiting for all 60 members of the Democratic caucus to cast their "aye" votes, hitting the 60-vote threshold and making the GOP votes moot.

Because of the narrow timeline on health care, Democrats decided to schedule votes on the defense spending bill shortly after 1 a.m. so that, under parliamentary rules, that legislation can be finished by breakfast-time Saturday. That is a preemptive move to allow extra floor time for other potential delay tactics by Republicans on health care.

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