Senate Health Bill Clears Crucial Hurdle

Saturday night, while you might have been out to dinner, or at the movies, Senate Democrats were sweating out whether they had enough votes to clear their health overhaul bill over its first hurdle on the Senate floor. NPR's Julie Rovner spent her evening with them, and filed this report.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Last night, Senate Democrats pushed ahead with President Barack Obama's top domestic initiative - they gave him the 60 votes needed to move a health care overhaul bill to the Senate floor for a full-scale debate.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

Unidentified Man: On this vote, the yeas are 60, the nays are 39. Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn, having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to.

JULIE ROVNER: And with that, one of the most anticipated procedural votes of the year, in fact, in many years, went into the history books. Technically, all it did was formally begin the Senate's health care debate, a debate that by most estimates will stretch from now until Christmas. But for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it was not just a vote of confidence for his leadership, but a huge boost for the health overhaul effort.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): The road ahead is a long stretch, but we can see the finish line. We have the momentum that's going to keep this process moving, I have no doubt.

ROVNER: Most of the suspense leading up to the vote dissipated earlier in the day. That's when the last two undeclared Democrats, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, announced they'd join all their colleagues, plus the Senate's two Independents to move the bill forward. Said Landrieu´┐Ż

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): After a thorough review of the bill, as I said over the last two and a half days, which included many lengthy discussions, I've decided that there are enough significant reforms and safeguards in this bill to move forward, but much more work needs to be done.

ROVNER: But getting the bill to the floor for debate and getting it passed are two different mountains. In order to placate the liberals who make up the majority of this caucus, Reid embraced a so-called public option, a government-sponsored plan individuals could choose as one possibility in the new insurance marketplace for the uninsured and small businesses the measure also calls for.

But several of the 60 members who voted to allow the bill to move to the floor have already announced that they won't vote for it again if that public option remains. Among them is Blanche Lincoln, who provided that pivotal 60th vote last night.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): I've already alerted the leader, and I'm promising my colleague that I'm prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, Republicans apparently considered the 60 votes a foregone conclusion. They spent the rare weekend session already debating the merits of the bill. Many of their complaints had to do with the bill's cost. Most, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, simply brushed off a Congressional Budget Office estimate that showed the bill would actually reduce the federal deficit.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): A vote in favor of this bill is a vote in favor of the spending binge that's leading to a massive and unsustainable long-term debt that will shackle our children to a future they can't afford.

ROVNER: Republicans also bitterly complained about the bill's abortion language. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback says the Senate bill is too permissive.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): The abortion language that was included in the bill is a departure, huge departure. Thirty years, bipartisan federal policy prohibiting federal tax dollars from paying for elective abortions.

ROVNER: There's considerable debate about whether that's the case, but now that the bill's formally on the floor there's going to be considerable debate about most of what's in the measure.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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