By Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A06
From Capitol Hill to the White House, Democrats on Tuesday began celebrating the imminent approval by the Senate of an overhaul of the nation's health insurance system. The measure cleared a second procedural hurdle and Republicans agreed to cut short the debate, setting the stage for a final vote Thursday morning.
"The finish line is in sight," the bill's chief architect, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), declared shortly after the Senate voted 60 to 39, along caucus lines, to advance the $871 billion health package. "We're not the first to attempt such reforms. We will be the first to succeed."
Hours later, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confidently announced: "Health-care reform is not a matter of if. Health-care reform now is a matter of when."
Even Senate Republicans appeared ready to admit defeat, as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) cut a deal with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to hold a final vote on the Senate bill at 8 a.m. Thursday, allowing senators to head home hours earlier than expected. Under Senate rules, Republicans could have forced senators to stay at their desks until nearly 10 p.m. during what will be the Senate's first Christmas Eve session since 1963.
Unable to block the bill, Republicans argued that they had done all they could to shine a light of harsh scrutiny on the package and the many side deals Reid cut to win over wavering Democrats. Polls show that a majority of Americans are highly skeptical that they will benefit from the president's top domestic initiative, and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said the most effective strategy is to let senators face the wrath of their constituents back home.
"The very best thing that can happen to this bill is for us to go home and let the people of this country tell the congressmen and the senators what they think about the taxes, the Medicare cuts and the sweetheart deals," Alexander said, "so when we come back in January, we can stop this train and take a different course. We still have time to go down a different road, rather than pursue a political kamikaze mission toward a historic mistake."
If the Senate approves the health package, attention will return to the House, which last month passed a much more generous plan to expand coverage to the uninsured, in part by creating a government-run insurance plan. During several painful weeks of negotiations, Reid demonstrated that the "public option" could not pass the Senate, and House liberals signaled Tuesday that they may be willing to settle for other concessions, such as launching the bulk of the reforms in 2013, a year earlier than the Senate bill now prescribes.
The reconciliation of the two bills is expected to take place in January, with the aim of sending a bill to the White House for President Obama's signature before he delivers his first State of the Union address. Instead of negotiating in a formal conference committee, senior Democratic aides in both chambers said they expect to hash out a bill in informal negotiations, push it through the House and send it back to the Senate for final approval, a strategy that would give them broad flexibility to rewrite policy provisions in search of a compromise.
With the threat of snow and ice storms in the Midwest adding a sense of urgency among senators hoping to get home for Christmas, Reid and McConnell also agreed to vote Thursday on a plan to increase the government's legal debt limit to $12.4 trillion. The temporary increase is projected to get the Treasury through another two months. In exchange, Republicans won the right to stage a full debate on the debt limit in late January, when lawmakers will have to approve an even larger increase to accommodate record deficits.
Republicans view the soaring national debt as a potent political issue heading into the 2010 congressional elections and want to use a lengthy Senate debate to focus attention on the issue just as Obama is preparing to address Congress and unveil his second budget request.