By Alexander Bolton - 11/21/09 11:00 AM EST
The Senate will vote at 8 p.m. Saturday to begin debate on a
2,074-page healthcare bill, an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare laws
that is estimated to cost $849 billion over the next 10 years.
Senate Democratic leaders are quietly confident they will hold onto the support of every member of their conference to muster the 60 votes needed to begin debate. But they are not making any bold public predictions.
One centrist Democrat whose vote was uncertain, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), announced Friday he would vote to begin debate. Two other centrists Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuLouisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy Crowded field muddies polling in Louisiana Senate race MORE (D-La.) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) declined to reveal their positions as of late Friday.
Once senators vote to cut off a GOP filibuster, the Senate will automatically adopt a motion to proceed to the bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Technically, the Senate will vote to take up a three-page placeholder bill, the Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act, and Reid will then offer the healthcare bill as a substitute amendment.
Republican aides said the maneuver would give Reid flexibility to amend provisions before the floor debate begins in earnest when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving Day break.
A senior Democratic aide, however, said the healthcare bill has already been filed as an amendment and cannot be changed.
In any case, Reid would be limited from making substantial last-minute changes by the pledge he made to centrist Democrats to give them adequate time to review the bill.
The preliminary skirmishing will take less time than expected because Sen. Tom CoburnTom CoburnRyan calls out GOP in anti-poverty fight The Trail 2016: Words matter Ex-Sen. Coburn: I won’t challenge Trump, I’ll vote for him MORE (R-Okla.) has relented on his earlier demand that Senate clerks read the bill aloud on the floor. That would have required an estimated 30 hours or longer.
Another Republican senator said Coburn was satisfied by Democrats’ willingness to give the GOP Friday and most of Saturday to examine the legislation and air their concerns during floor speeches.
The bipartisan agreement to wrap up the preliminary floor procedures by Saturday means that lawmakers can catch flights back to their home states later in the day or the following morning.
Republicans have already opened up several lines of attack against the bill, offering a preview of the floor fight that is expected to last until Christmas.
Republicans will criticize the bill for cutting Medicare, adding to the federal deficit and raising taxes on the middle class.
Democrats will counter by arguing it will boost health insurance coverage to between 94 and 98 percent of all Americans; reduce total healthcare spending; reduce the federal deficit; and prohibit insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions or dropping policyholders once they become sick.
Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyFour states sue to stop internet transition Senate passes bill to preserve sexual assault kits Grassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' MORE (Iowa), senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, plans to highlight findings from the Joint Committee on Taxation showing that in the year 2019, 77 percent of the tax increases in the Finance Committee healthcare reform bill would be borne by middle-class taxpayers.
Reid took the revenue-raising provisions for the floor bill from the Finance Committee legislation passed last month.
Many of the middle-class taxpayers affected would be those who hold high-cost insurance plans. Health plans costing more than $8,500 per year for individuals and $23,000 for families would be subject to a 40-percent excise tax. The threshold would be increased for people in certain high-cost states and for those who work dangerous jobs with greater chance of injury.
The Finance Committee originally set the threshold at $8,000 and $21,000 for individuals and families, respectively.
Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, will emphasize an analysis from his staff showing that once fully implemented the true cost of the healthcare bill will amount to $2.5 trillion. He argues the bill is “front-loaded” with tax hikes and spending cuts in the first few years and that most new spending provisions go into effect after 2014, minimizing the cost over the 2010-2019 period analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The bill would raise taxes by $494 billion and cut Medicare by $465 billion, according to the Republican budget analysis
Senate Democrats, however, dispute the bill would add to the federal deficit.
They point to an analysis by the CBO showing that Reid’s bill would cut the budget deficit by $127 billion over its first 10 years and by as much as $650 billion in its second decade.
CBO estimates the legislation would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 31 million.
A late-breaking wild card in the debate is a recent recommendation from a federal task force that women should receive fewer mammograms.
Republicans think the issue could become politically explosive. They argue the recommendations signal the likelihood of government-mandated healthcare rationing in the future.
Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said the charge was unfounded.
“Senate Republicans have lied about many things in this debate. We’ll add this to the list,” he said.
Reid is holding out hope that he can persuade one or two Republicans to support the bill.
“I have had conversations during the past few days, past vew weeks with Sen. Snowe. I’ve spoken to Sen. Collins,” Reid said Thursday in reference to Republican Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan CollinsSusan CollinsElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Swing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks MORE. “We reach out to our Republican colleagues, and would like to work with them, but everyone should understand: We’re going to do a bill.”
Snowe, however, has told colleagues that she will vote Saturday evening against the motion to begin debate on the healthcare bill.
And Collins spoke out against the bill in a floor speech late Friday afternoon.
“We hope that we don’t have to do it with Democrats, but if we have to, we will,” Reid said Thursday.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell opens door to changing 9/11 bill Reid sums up 114th Congress as 'a flop' Michigan Dems highlight Flint with unanimous opposition to CR MORE (R-Ky.) said the Senate should focus on other must-pass bills.
“Why are we trying to do this -- pass this 2,000-page bill that, as several senators have indicated, the American people oppose -- when we ought to be addressing the matters that are clearly needed and urgent?” McConnell said.
“Look at the items out there for the rest of the year. The provisions of the Patriot Act are expiring. We haven't finished the appropriation bills. The majority wants to extend the debt ceiling,” he added.
Jeffrey Young contributed to this article