ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
After 25 straight days of acrimonious debate, senators are heading home for the holidays. Early this morning, they've finally passed a health care overhaul bill. The vote ran strictly along partly lines and much work remains to be done before the overhaul can become a reality.
NPR's David Welna has the story from the Capitol.
DAVID WELNA: It had been over a century since senators assembled on Christmas Eve for a roll call vote. But after a string of middle of the night, crack of dawn and blizzards-be-damned votes, no one seemed to mind the 7:00 a.m. finale for the Democrat's bill. After all, many have feared it might happen later, too late to get home for Christmas. As senators took their seats for the unusually formal roll call, Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the late Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, who died last August after decades of fighting for expanded health care coverage.
HARRY REID: This is just the beginning. With Senator Ted Kennedy's voice booming in our ears, with his passion in our hearts, we say, as he said, the work goes on, the cause endures.
WELNA: But Senate Republicans fought the health care bill to what was for them a bitter end. Their leader, Mitch McConnell, issued a warning to the Democrats, whose 60 votes have kept the GOP from blocking the bill with the filibuster.
MITCH MCCONNELL: I guarantee you, the people who have voted for this bill are going to get an earful when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving. They know there is widespread opposition to this monstrosity. And I want to assure you, Mr. President, this fight isn't over. In fact, this fight is long from over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law.
WELNA: Then one by one senators rose from their seats to vote as Kennedy's widow, Vicki, looked on from the visitor's gallery. Ninety-two-year-old West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd showed up in his wheelchair, as he has for all the recent votes held at strange hours. The only no-show was retiring Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning. The somber atmosphere gave way to a moment of mirth when the clerk called on the visibly exhausted majority leader.
Unidentified Woman (Clerk): Mr. Reid of Nevada.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WELNA: Both Democrats and Republicans were laughing because Reid mistakenly first voted no for his bill, then quickly corrected himself to vote for it. The final tally was 60 to 39, with not one Republican backing the bill. Reid later may light of his verbal slip.
REID: I spent a very restless night last night trying to figure out how I could show some bipartisanship. And I think I was able to accomplish that for a few minutes today.
WELNA: And New York Democrat Charles Schumer said he simply did not believe the Republican leaders' claim that Democrats will go home and hear constituents railing against Reid's bill.
CHARLES SCHUMER: I believe that the negativity that Leader McConnell and others have continually displayed on the floor has peaked. And now, when people learn what's actually in the bill and all the good it does, it is going to become more and more popular.
WELNA: Broadening public support for the health care overhaul maybe the Democrats' biggest challenge in the coming weeks. At the White House today, President Obama took time to plug the Senate bill before flying off to Hawaii for the holidays.
BARACK OBAMA: These are not small reforms. These are big reforms. If passed, this will be the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s and the most important reform of our health care system since Medicare passed in the 1960s.
WELNA: Democrats aim to enact a health care overhaul by the time Mr. Obama delivers his State of the Union address in late January or early February. To do that they'll have to come up with a compromise bill both the House and Senate can pass. And they'll likely need all the help the president can give to get there.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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