Senate Burns Midnight Oil To Keep Health Care Warm

Despite a winter storm that's left Washington, D.C., under a blanket of snow, Senate Democrats have been working all morning to put together the 60 votes they need to pass the health care bill. Host Scott Simon goes to NPR's David Welna for an update.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We're going to go now to the floor of the U.S. Senate, where Democrats may be on the verge of putting together the 60 votes they want and need to pass health care overhaul legislation. The Senate this morning already approved a $636 billion defense bill, which is timely, since the Pentagon's funding would otherwise have expired tonight.

Now the debate is focused entirely on health care. We're going to go to NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID WELNA: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: And what's happened so far? What can we expect for the rest of the day?

WELNA: Well, after the passed the defense bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to introduce his so-called manager's amendment. This is the sort of fix to the health care bill that he had to make in order to try to get all 60 members of his caucus onboard. That's the only way they're going to pass this bill.

And the moment he tried to do that, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, objected to waiving the reading of this amendment, and it's a nearly 400-page amendment. So immediately things reverted to the clerk reading. And this is sort of how it sounded in the chamber.

Unidentified Woman: For purposes of this section, certain rules do apply. Rules similar to the rules contained in Paragraph...

WELNA: Now, there weren't that many people who were actually listening to the reading of the bill. But of course reading the bill delays things by another five hours or so, and the clock is ticking down to Christmas Eve, which is sort of the deadline that Democrats have set for getting this thing passed.

But Republicans are using every trick they have in their bag of minority rights procedures to slow this thing down.

SIMON: But I gather there are some Democrats who now believe that they have the 60 votes, once they get a chance to cast it.

WELNA: That seems to be the case. Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the one holdout. They had rounded up 59 votes, apparently, for this, and Nelson has announced that he is onboard, that he is going to vote both for cloture - that is, cutting off debate - and for the final bill. His biggest concern was about language on abortion in the bill. He did not want any tax dollars used for abortion. He says that he's satisfied with the language that's in it right now.

So it looks like Democrats do have the votes to get this thing passed again.

SIMON: But what happens next? When is a vote?

WELNA: Well, that's the big question. Republicans are using their entire arsenal to try to slow things down, and they're doing it because they're feeling political pressure from their own base to do so. I talked with Senator John Thune of South Dakota this morning, and he said that that's exactly why they're slowing things down.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): The expectation for us is that we have to stay here and do everything we can to stop this. Because the people, the majority of Americans that we hear from, at least, expect that. And if we don't do everything we can and use every procedural tool at our disposal to stop this thing, then I mean I think we're going to be held accountable to the majority of people out there who are opposed to the bill.

WELNA: So expect to see many more attempts to slow things down in the next few days. But right now the train seems headed towards some kind of vote on Christmas Eve.

SIMON: Well, briefly back to the - if we can be brief talking about a $636 billion defense bill - money for defense but some other add-ons too, isn't there?

WELNA: Yes. Because there are various provisions related to the American society that are expiring at the end of the year. Unemployment insurance benefits run out at the end of the year. Also, benefits to help buy health insurance for people who've lost their jobs run out. There are two-month extensions in the defense bill for that, and that is something that will be welcome news for Christmas for many people who will be the beneficiaries of that.

SIMON: You're from Minnesota. I'm from Illinois. Does this snow impress you much?

WELNA: Well, I must say, I've been out of Minnesota for a while and I haven't seen an accumulation like this in years in Washington.

SIMON: Okay. NPR's David Welna on the Hill. Thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Scott.

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