Senate Faces Christmas Eve Health Care Vote

A deeply divided Senate votes Friday morning on a health overhaul bill. Senators have been debating the measure nearly every day for a month. Despite Republican opposition, Democrats and President Obama say the measure will make history. The president explained why in an NPR interview Wednesday.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate votes this morning on a landmark health overhaul bill, the first time the Senate has cast a vote on Christmas Eve in over a century. Senators have been debating the measure nearly every day for a month, and they continue to be split along partisan lines. Despite firm Republican opposition, Democrats and President Obama say the bill will make history. The president told us why yesterday in an interview with NPR.

Health policy correspondent Julie Rovner was there at the White House, and she joins us in our studio now. Good morning, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the bill itself, which is expected to pass this morning, just - actually, very soon. What are the prospects for being able to merge the Senate bill with the bill that has - that passed in the House last month?

ROVNER: Well, the bills do have a lot in common, but there are some pretty important differences that will have to be worked out. The House bill includes the so-called public option, the government-sponsored health plan that would compete with private insurance plans. The Senate bill does not. That was the requirement of Senator Joe Lieberman for him to vote for it. The Senate bill has less restrictive abortion language than the House bill, although both bills are opposed by abortion rights groups, who, in fact, make up a majority of Democrats who will vote for the bills in both the House and Senate.

And while both the bills are fully paid for - in order words, they don't add to the federal deficit - they're paid for in fundamentally different ways. The House bill relies on a surtax on wealthy individuals, people earning - individuals earning more than half a million dollars and couples earning more than a million dollars. The Senate bill taxes health care providers, as well as instituting a tax on health plans with very generous benefits.

MONTAGNE: And Julie, now to that interview with President Obama. He weighed in with some preferences for what he'd like to see in a final House-Senate compromise, didn't he?

ROVNER: That's right, particularly on how to pay for the bill. Here's what he said about the Senate's proposal to tax those generous insurance plans, known as Cadillac plans.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm on record to saying that taxing Cadillac plans that don't make people healthier but just take more money out of their pockets because they're paying more for insurance than they need to, that's actually a good idea and that helps bend the cost curve. That helps to reduce the cost of health care over the long term. I think that's a smart thing to do.

ROVNER: Now, that's pretty controversial because while that tax is strongly supported by health economists, it's vehemently opposed by labor unions, who are a major part of the Democrats' base, but who also tend to have those Cadillac health plans.

MONTAGNE: And a big Republican criticism of the bill is that many of the taxes start right away, but the benefits don't start until a few years from now. What did the president have to say about that?

ROVNER: Well, like Democrats in the Senate, the president was ready with a long list of some of the benefits that do begin sooner. Now, of course, the major benefits don't start for a while, but some benefits do begin right away, things like letting young adults stay on their parents' plans - health insurance plans until they're 26, filling the so-called donut hole in the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors, and what the president called a patient's bill of rights on steroids, preventing bad behavior by health insurance companies, things like canceling plans after people get sick.

MONTAGNE: Of course, it's not just Republicans who have concerns about this bill. Also, there are complaints from the left, right?

ROVNER: That's right, particularly liberals who are unhappy at the Senate's jettisoning of that public option. And actually the president addressed those complaints without really being prompted.

Pres. OBAMA: This notion, I know, among some on the left that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be, that we still need a single-payer plan, etc., etc., I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation, at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.

ROVNER: You know, the president likes to say that this bill will make history. The Republicans, who unanimously oppose it, like to say that the Democrats who vote for this bill will be history in the next election.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you have any sense of that?

ROVNER: Well, I think that it's one of those times where we'll just have to wait and see.

MONTAGNE: NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Thanks very much.

ROVNER: You're very welcome.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.