Senate Democrats Pay Dearly For 60 Votes

This day is the year's shortest in terms of daylight, but it may also be one of the U.S. Senate's longest. For the third weekend in a row, senators have remained in session. Early Monday morning in a 1 a.m. procedural vote, the Democratic majority has a chance to show it really does have the 60 votes its leaders claim to have for moving landmark health care legislation to a final vote before Christmas.

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

For the third weekend in a row, senators have remained in session racing to finish health care legislation before Christmas. And the last holdout senator who had kept the Democrats from getting the necessary 60 votes now says he's on board. NPR's David Welna has this report from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid waited until yesterday to unveil the package of deals he'd made with other senators to lock in the votes of all 60 members of his Democratic caucus. Asked whether he'd finally reached that filibuster-proof magic number, Reid sounded hopeful.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Seems that way.

WELNA: The last senator Reid had to win over was Nebraska's social conservative, Ben Nelson. Nelson had a lot of issues with the health care bill Reid rolled out last month. But more than anything else, Nelson wanted to keep federal tax dollars from being spent on abortion. He said yesterday he's now satisfied with tighter accounting rules and a requirement that each state have at least one federally supervised insurance plan that does not offer abortion coverage.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I believe in my heart of hearts that this handles the whole question of funding abortion, of banning of the funding of abortion by federal money, either directly or indirectly.

WELNA: And thus, Nelson became vote number 60 for the Democrats. It must've been a huge relief for President Obama, who'd staked the prestige of his presidency on getting a health care bill passed. Yesterday, he told reporters at the White House that, quote, "We are on the cusp of making health care reform a reality."

President BARACK OBAMA: With today's developments, it now appears that the American people will have the vote they deserve (unintelligible) reform that offers security to those who have health insurance and affordable options for those who do not.

WELNA: The president said the changes Majority Leader Reid made to the health care bill have made it even stronger, including measures projected to reduce the nation's deficit by $132 billion in the first decade and more than a trillion dollars the following 10 years.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, trumpeted those numbers last night on the Senate floor.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): This health care reform bill as amended, is the greatest deficit reduction bill in the history of the United States.

WELNA: Still, not one Senate Republican has declared any intention to vote for the health care overhaul. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of trying to make the wrong kind of history.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): This bill is a legislative train wreck of historic proportions. But they are so eager to claim a victory, so eager to claim a victory, they'll simply do anything to jam it through in the next few days.

WELNA: And Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss noted that Nebraska Democrat Nelson had gotten special treatment for his state through full funding of expanded Medicaid coverage.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): It's pretty obvious that votes have been bought. I mean, whatever it took to get a vote, that's what the majority leader did.

WELNA: Majority Leader Reid readily acknowledged he'd made deals.

Sen. REID: That's what legislation's all about: compromise.

WELNA: For Senate Republicans, though, slowing things down is what it's all about. Here's South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): We're going to talk about this until Christmas Day, so the American people will know the truth about what's in this bill.

WELNA: A final vote on the Senate bill is expected Christmas Eve.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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