Policy-ish

Senate Hits 51 Votes in 15 Minutes On Health Care Bill

After more than three weeks of rancorous debate and a series of hard-fought procedural victories, Senate Democrats secured the votes needed to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's health care system Thursday.

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid hugs Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, after the Senat i i

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid hugs Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, after the Senate passed the health bill. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, looks on at center. Harry Hamburg/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Hamburg/AP
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid hugs Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, after the Senat

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid hugs Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, after the Senate passed the health bill. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, looks on at center.

Harry Hamburg/AP

The achievement brought President Obama and Democrats a step closer to the most significant change in national health coverage since Medicare was created more than four decades ago.

As senators gathered to vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) invoked President Harry Truman's failed efforts to bring about national insurance coverage during the 1940s. "How much longer can we afford to put this off?" Reid asked. "We don't have the luxury of waiting."

Despite unflinching Republican opposition and late carping by liberals that compromises to forge a filibuster-proof bloc went too far, Senate Democrats closed ranks behind legislation that would expand coverage to tens of millions of Americans, restrict the ability of private insurers to deny coverage and eventually trim the nation's budget deficit. The price tag for the Senate bill: $871 billion over a decade.

President Obama acknowledged that the road so far has been rough, during an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel and Julie Rovner Wednesday. The president made the case, however, that the struggle against what he called politically and ideologically driven opposition has been worthwhile.

Democrats assert that the Senate bill would fundamentally transform the health care system in the country, beginning with restrictions on private insurance companies. Obama told NPR that "a patient's bill of rights on steroids" lies inside the Senate bill.

Various provisions would prevent insurers from dropping ill patients and denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. The bill would also require that individuals buy insurance, if they don't already have it from their employers or existing government programs, such as Medicare.

Federal subsidies would be offered to help low-income people afford coverage. A financial penalty would be levied against people who fail to buy insurance.

Senators voted 60-39 Wednesday to end debate on the health bill, clearing the way for the last vote for final passage on Christmas Eve.

Republicans remained steadfast in their opposition. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), contended that it "just might wind up being the most widely hated legislation of the decade."

On Wednesday, the Democrats also voted down a challenge led by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada that questioned the constitutionality of the mandate for the purchase of insurance in the Senate bill. Ensign and his allies argued an insurance mandate would violate a Fifth Amendment ban on the government taking private property without appropriate compensation.

The vote on Christmas Eve made another kind of history. The last time senators cast votes on that day was in 1895. According to the Senate Historical Office, legislators wanted to allow former Confederate officers to be employed by the United States Army.

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