Senate Democrats block GOP filibuster

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.

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.

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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