Senate Heading For Late-Night Health Care Vote

The first make-or-break vote on the Senate health care bill is expected in the wee hours Sunday night — actually about 1 a.m. Monday. NPR's Mara Liasson talks to host Guy Raz about why in the world the Senate is voting in the middle of the night just a few days before Christmas — and what chance the Senate has of finishing its business before the holiday.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

After yesterday's announcement by Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson that he'll back the Democratic health-care bill, the Senate is finally on track to vote. The first key test is expected to take place at 1 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday morning. Nelson's decision gave the Democrats the critical 60th vote, which should ensure passage.

NPR's Mara Liasson has been following all the twists and turns of the process and is here to help us sort it out.

Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Guy.

RAZ: Mara, let's start with the vote. Is this it? Is this the vote for the health-care bill?

LIASSON: The vote at 1 a.m. tomorrow morning is not the final vote. It's the first of three cloture votes. That means that all three of those votes will need 60 votes to pass. The vote on final passage of the Senate health-care bill will probably occur by Christmas Eve, and that vote only needs 51 to pass. So they've got a lot of votes to go, but they expect to get them all done by Christmas Eve.

RAZ: So realistically, this is not going to get to the president's desk until at the earliest - what, late January?

LIASSON: Or maybe early January. The point is that once it's through the Senate, that is a huge, huge hurdle overcome.

RAZ: Mara, Senator Ben Nelson made out pretty well in exchange for his support here, right?

LIASSON: That's right. He got two things that he wanted. He got some language about abortion in the bill that would allow states to opt out. In other words, if they didn't want insurance companies who offer coverage on the exchanges in their states to cover abortion, they can decide that for themselves. He also got the federal government to pick up, in perpetuity, the cost of extending Medicaid to people who make a higher income than is currently law.

Now, the federal government is going to do that for all states through 2016, but in Nebraska, it supposedly will go on forever.

RAZ: That's a pretty big deal. I mean, is there any sense that other members of the Senate are irritated by this?

LIASSON: No, actually. They're thrilled to have Nelson's vote. Many of them got things they wanted. And also, they know that you can't bind a future Congress. So in 2017, will the Congress that's in office then continue this deal with Nebraska? Maybe; maybe not.

RAZ: Mara, we know that the bill isn't going to get a single Republican vote, but there's been a fair amount of criticism from the left on this bill as well.

LIASSON: That's right. This was the week when all the stresses and strains inside the Democratic coalition really burst into the open. You had Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and party chair, saying that the Senate bill should be scrapped. You have Keith Olbermann, the anchor at MSNBC, talking about how the president should veto this bill. MoveOn.org is against the bill and is going to take out ads against it. Labor unions are grousing.

The interesting thing about all of that is not a single liberal in the House or Senate has come out and said that they would vote no on this current iteration of the health-care bill. I think liberals are going to swallow hard, pass health care, and realize that they can come back and try to improve it year after year. But this is a historic opportunity that will probably only come once.

You also, on another subject, had Nancy Pelosi saying to the president: When it comes time to find funding for the Afghan troop expansion that you want, you're on your own, pal. I think there's a lot of tension, a lot of anxiety in the Democratic coalition about 2010. They're looking at some pretty bad polls right now, and this has been a time of a lot of turmoil.

RAZ: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Guy.

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