GOP Weighs Health Care Strategy In Senate

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Health care overhaul is the law of the land, but Republicans could still make trouble for the package of "fixes" the House passed and sent to the Senate. Republicans are now offering amendments to force votes Democrats would rather not take.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Though the health care overhaul is now the law of the land, the Senate was working late last night on revisions. That's because the bill the Congress passed is the Senate version, and many House Democrats who voted for it object to some of the details.

The House passed a separate bill of fixes that senators now have to approve. They're considering it under special budget rules, with no Republican filibusters allowed. Still, Republicans are looking for ways to alter the legislation.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Amid the jubilation at the White House, as President Obama signed the health care bill into law, there was a big footnote. The president reminded a roomful of supporters that the Senate had not yet approved the package of changes to the law that Democrats insist will only make it better.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: And while the Senate still has the last round of improvements to make on this historic legislation and...

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

President OBAMA: ...these are improvements I'm confident they will make swiftly.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: Just how swiftly is still not clear, though Senate Democrats say they do have more than enough votes to approve the so-called budget reconciliation bill. Yesterday, as the clock started ticking down 20 hours of debate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus reminded the Republican minority that this is a relatively small bill of corrections and not the big health care makeover that's now law.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Senate Finance Committee): We do not have to reopen every argument that we had over the last two years. We do not have to say everything that we said about health care one more time.

WELNA: But Republicans, not surprisingly, did have much more to say about the new law, which they continued to refer to as only a bill. Here's minority leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate Floor.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): People oppose this bill not because they don't know what's in it, but because they know exactly what's in it. But for some reason, Democrats in Washington still think they can continue to spin the public on this bill.

WELNA: New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg even suggested the sky was falling -or at least a chunk of it.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): This will all end up rolling into a giant ball, like a huge, massive asteroid headed at Earth, which is basically going to land on our children's heads as debt. That's what we're headed towards here.

WELNA: The GOP's renewed offensive against legislation that's now law is all part of what Texas Republican John Cornyn says is an effort to show Republicans haven't given up, especially with mid-term elections less than eight months away.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Part of what the American people want to see from us is that we are going to keep fighting, and we're not going to let the president suck up all the oxygen and spin this thing into a, you know, something that it's not. And I think that's their plan.

WELNA: Cornyn says Republicans want to alter the reconciliation bill, either by amending it or by getting one of its provisions ruled out of order. If they manage to do so, the package of fixes would then have to go back for another vote in the House. Republicans contend that some House Democrats only voted for the health care bill because certain items were stuck into it to buy their votes.

So the GOP's strategy is to force a vote on stripping those so-called sweeteners out of the health care bill with the reconciliation bill, which would then send that bill back to the House, where Republicans hope it would not get enough votes to pass. It was Arizona Republican John McCain who offered the amendment that would cut out those special deals.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The most egregious have been removed, but we certainly have a number of others that remain in the bill, and we will be finding them in the future.

WELNA: McCain pointed to special Medicaid assistance for Louisiana that's in the health care law as an example of what his amendment would eliminate. That brought an angry response from Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, who said the Medicaid money was put there to compensate for funds depleted by Hurricane Katrina.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): And it was not done to buy my vote. My vote was given to this bill because this bill deserves it, because it's a very good piece of legislation. And I told the leader I would vote for it whether this was in it or not.

WELNA: McCain's amendment is one of possibly hundreds of politically charged amendments Republicans want votes on. There's no limit to the number of amendments that can be offered. GOP leaders say they'll keep close track of how Democrats vote on those amendments to remind voters in November.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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