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Senate Democrats block GOP filibuster

Democrats were furious at the filibuster attempt on Pentagon funds. "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."

They believed they had a deal with Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, but by Thursday afternoon Cochran signalled to Democrats he was unsure of his vote.

Cochran secured 45 earmarks -- line items that he directed to military contractors and bases in his own state -- worth $167 million in a piece of legislation he opposed, according to an independent analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. He voted no.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a blistering letter Thursday warning of a "serious disruption" in the military's ability to pay troops. "It is inconceivable to me that such a situation would be permitted to occur with U.S. forces actively deployed in combat," Gates wrote.

Republicans had hoped that Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a staunch opponent of the wars, would support the filibuster on grounds that it would deny funding for the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a closed-door meeting Thursday evening, Feingold delivered a stirring talk to Democrats and indicated that he would vote with them, leading to 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 Saturday on the final Pentagon spending bill, a vote that will require only 51 ayes to succeed.

All eyes on Nelson

That final defense vote will clear the way for Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to return to the health-care debate, making Nelson the most closely watched man in the Senate.

Nelson has been pressing for the Senate bill to 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 funding in the new insurance exchanges for people 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 lack resources.

In a statement Thursday, Nelson said: "The compromise adds important new initiatives addressing teen pregnancy and tax credits to help with adoptions. 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 that even if the abortion issue is resolved, he still might not support the $848 billion package because of concerns that a provision to dramatically expand Medicaid would burden the states unduly.

The back-and-forth in the Senate chamber came as the Democratic Party's leading figures engaged in a fierce debate over the emerging legislation, which was recently pared of a government-run insurance plan and a proposed expansion of Medicare.

Those provisions had strong backing from labor unions, and on Thursday two of labor's most prominent figures -- AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and SEIU President Andy Stern -- denounced the compromise version pending in the Senate.

But former president Bill Clinton declared his support. "These chances don't come around every day," he said in a statement. "Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder -- both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal and economic health of our country."

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