Health-care bill clears last Senate hurdle before passage

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, left, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. share a laugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, left, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. share a laugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg) (Harry Hamburg - AP)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; 6:59 PM

Overcoming a final procedural hurdle, Senate Democrats cleared the way Wednesday for Christmas Eve passage of a landmark health-care bill that would provide coverage to more than 30 million people and begin a far-reaching overhaul of Medicare and the private insurance market.

Senate Democrats turned back the third and final Republican filibuster of the $871 billion package on a 60-39 vote that came late Wednesday afternoon. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol at 7 a.m. Thursday morning for one last roll call to pass the bill.

In a hint of the significance of the vote, the White House announced Wednesday night that Vice President Biden would preside over Thursday's session.

With the outcome all but certain, Democrats have come closer than ever to realizing their 70-year-old goal of near-universal health coverage. Difficult issues must be resolved in final negotiations with the House, and those talks could stretch through January and perhaps into February, Democratic leaders said. Yet party leaders were increasingly confident that President Obama would be able to sign a bill into law in early 2010.

"We stand on the doorstep of history," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the vote. But he declined to speculate about negotiations with the House.

"I'm not going to talk about conference. I'm talking about passing this bill," he told reporters late Wednesday. For at least a few days after Christmas, Reid said, he would rest back home in Nevada. "I am going to just sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus," he said.

Republicans fought the Senate bill with every parliamentary weapon they could muster, raising a series of motions on Wednesday afternoon that all failed along party lines, and the rhetoric grew more harsh as the afternoon wore on. After the Wednesday votes, Democrats sought an agreement to move up the final vote to Wednesday night, to aid lawmakers and staff trying to to beat a Midwestern snowstorm. GOP senators refused the deal.

Some of the toughest criticism of the package Wednesday came from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who last summer had spent months trying to craft a bipartisan reform package with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.).

Grassley abandoned the quest after controversy erupted in August over the idea that Democratic bills would create "death panels," and the debate took a sharply ideological turn. The Iowa Republican said he concluded that Democrats were ceding too much authority over health care to the federal government, while failing to aggressively contain costs.

"From rationing care to infringing on the doctor-patient relationship, this government-run system will guarantee U.S. taxpayers a staggering tax burden for generations to come," Grassley said on the Senate floor. The final bill, Grassley said, "doesn't do any of these things that we set out to do at the beginning."

Republicans launched fresh lines of attack against the bill, highlighting a miscalculation by the Congressional Budget Office in predicting the bill's long-term deficit impact, and asserting that the legislation raised a series of constitutional questions.

GOP lawmakers said the CBO error suggested that Congress's official budget scorekeeper had made other mistakes that might not surface until after the bill is signed into law. "We don't have to do this before Christmas," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) told reporters. "The majority leader can stop right now."

Gregg, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, continued, "Let's come back next week, after New Year's, and take up this bill and have some amendments and correct this problem, if nothing else, so that our seniors don't end up getting stuck and our kids don't end up with all this debt."

Republicans also argued that the bill included several provisions that could be proven unconstitutional, including a requirement that all individuals buy health coverage, or pay a fine. "This bill is a real threat to liberty because of the precedent that it sets on the federal government being able to tell individuals what to do," said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

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