LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
A record snow fall brought Washington, D.C. to a virtual halt over the weekend. Among those who managed to get to work: 100 U.S. senators. The full Senate was there into the wee hours of this morning for a crucial vote on the health care overhaul bill. And all 60 members of the Democratic caucus voted to break a Republican filibuster on the bill. If it goes to according to plan, Senate Democrats are now expected to pass their version of the bill just before Christmas.
NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: Last night's vote was actually the first of three times Democrats will need to muster all 60 members of their caucus to get the bill passed over unanimous Republican objections. Under Senate rules, each of those votes must be separated by 30 hours in order to get lawmakers and their staffs out by Christmas Eve. The first of the three was set for just after 1 AM. As the pivotal vote neared, Democrats, like Dick Durbin of Illinois, talked about the historic nature of the measure they hope to pass in the coming days.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): As Franklin Roosevelt did in social security; as Lyndon Johnson did with Medicare; Barack Obama, with health care reform, has challenged this Congress not to ignore a problem which has haunted the presidencies of seven great men who have previously served in that office.
ROVNER: But earlier in the day, the rhetoric inside the Senate was as hot as the blizzard had left things cold outside. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, who's been among the most outspoken critics of the measure, raised Democratic hackles with this comment - it was thought to allude to 92 year old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who has not been in the best of health.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): What the American people ought to pray, is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray.
ROVNER: But Democrats were ready with some hot rhetoric of their own. Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse delivered a blistering broadside against the GOP, accusing members of being, quote, �desperate to break this president.�
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): The birthers, the fanatics, the people running around in right-wing militias and Aryan support groups, it is unbearable to them that President Barack Obama should exist.
ROVNER: Republicans were particularly outraged by the subject of last night's vote, a 383-page amendment offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with all the last minute changes needed to nail down the remaining Democratic hold-out votes. Said Utah Republican, Orrin Hatch�
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): The Reid amendment represents everything that Americans hate about Washington right now. Chicago-style backroom buy-offs at the expense of the American taxpayers.
ROVNER: Indeed, Hatch and his fellow Republicans singled out for a special criticism, Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Not only did Nelson insist on stronger language to restrict federal abortion funding, he also got preferential treatment for his state.
Sen. HATCH: Who will pay for these special deals? Well, the answer is simple: every other state in the union, including my home state of Utah.
ROVNER: Democrats, however, like Iowa's Tom Harkin, said Republicans had been disingenuous in claiming that they needed more time to study the bill.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): This floor debate is not about offering amendments to improve the bill, it's really not about allowing more time to fully read it and understand the bill - that's nonsense. All the other side wants to do is kill this bill, period.
ROVNER: And like many of his more liberal colleagues, Harkin acknowledged that while the bill isn't everything he'd like it to be, it's better than not having a bill at all.
Sen. HARKIN: It's not like the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, it's a bill. It's a law. Laws change. But what we can do is lay down a good start towards bringing people into a health insurance system, stopping some of the most horrible practices of the health insurance industry.
ROVNER: Even without a government run public option, which was jettisoned two weeks ago, or a Medicare buy-in dropped last week, liberals seemed to be coalescing around the measure. The final amendment included several sweeteners for liberals, including more restrictions on the insurance industry. Even former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who last week said the Senate bill should be killed, had softened his stand significantly by yesterday's appearance on Meet the Press.
Governor HOWARD DEAN (Vermont, Former): This bill has improved over the last couple of weeks. I would let this thing go to conference committee and let's see if we can fix it some more.
ROVNER: First, however, senators will need to vote twice more before it can formally pass the Senate.
Julie Rovner, NPR News.
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