Harkin says Senate will work weekends this December on health

The chairman of a key Senate committee overseeing healthcare reform said Monday that the chamber will work every weekend in December to pass the bill by Christmas.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, predicted during an interview on the liberal "Bill Press Radio Show" that the Senate will have the 60 votes needed to call up the healthcare bill this week. But Harkin said senators will not begin amending the legislation until after the Thanksgiving break.

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Harkin said Democrats expect Republicans will try to stall the debate by asking for the entire bill to be read on the Senate floor. If that happens, Harkin said, the majority party is likely to use a procedural maneuver to keep the Senate in session this weekend.

"If the Republicans want to stay here this Saturday and Sunday to read the bill, then let them stay here," Harkin said, adding that Democrats would hold a "live quorum," where the sergeant at arms requests the presence of all absent senators.

"I'll tell you, we're going to do something like that," Harkin said. "We are planning to do something that would require Republicans to be there 24 hours a day, and if they leave the floor, we'll ask unanimous consent to dispense with the reading, and that'll be the end of it."

The Iowa senator laid out an ambitious schedule for the final weeks before the end of the year. He said Democrats expect to hold the first big test vote by Friday on a motion to proceed to the bill. But no amendments will come up until Nov. 30, at the earliest. He said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is committed to working through every weekend in December if that’s what it takes to pass the bill before lawmakers break for the Christmas holiday.

"We're going to be going long days — I've already talked to Leader Reid about this — long nights, weekends — constantly, from then until right before Christmas, when I think we'll have the votes, hopefully, to pass the bill," he said.

Harkin said Reid will appoint conferees immediately after the bill passes and would hopefully have Senate staffers begin work on a conference report with their House counterparts during the Christmas break. Conferees would then begin work after the first of the year, with an eye toward sending a final bill to the president by mid-January, shortly before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

The HELP chairman signaled that Senate Democrats expect the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to release its score of the health bill by Tuesday, a figure eagerly anticipated by Democrats and Republicans before the health debate begins.