Senate Dems prep for hardball tactics in health debate after floor strategizing

Senate Democrats threatened to pull out the procedural stops to force votes on amendments to the healthcare reform bill on the floor as the GOP continues to object to advancing the legislation.

Moreover, Senate Democrats said after huddling on floor strategy Wednesday, the majority party is prepared to keep the Senate in session until Christmas or beyond in order to complete work on the bill before New Year's.

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"Unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "We’re just not going to sit here forever and watch this bill go down."

The Senate began its formal debate on the healthcare reform bill on Monday but has yet to hold a vote on the first two amendments to the legislation because of Republican objections to moving forward. Without an agreement from the minority, Democrats would either have to file cloture on each amendment, a process that takes days and requires 60 votes, or move to table the amendments, a procedural move that requires only 51 votes but that traditionally has been viewed by senators as harsh.

With Congress's scheduled winter holiday recess fast approaching, the slow start to the floor debate — not to mention unresolved policy issues dividing Democrats — threatens the Democratic leadership's plan to get the bill passed before 2010. Democratic senators said they were ready to stay in session as long as it takes.

"The Republican leadership is stalling us, so we have decided we are going right through Christmas," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) predicted Democrats would meet their target despite the sluggish floor debate. "We’re going to get this done before the new year comes in. In fact, I think we’re going to get it done before Christmas," Harkin said. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already warned senators that he plans to keep the Senate in session at night and on weekends.

So far this week, the Senate has been stuck debating an amendment authored by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to increase access to breast cancer screenings and an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to strip more than $400 billion in Medicare spending cuts from the legislation. Reid planned to hold votes on these amendments and two substitute amendments Wednesday afternoon, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected Tuesday evening.

Republicans deny their intention is to stymie debate on the legislation, though a GOP leadership aide said their aim is to ensure that the healthcare reform bill is on the floor for at least as long as the several weeks Reid spent behind closed doors merging the healthcare bills approved by the Finance and HELP committees. The aide also noted that the Democratic Conference has 60 members and should be capable of overcoming any minority objections and that Democrats would move to table the amendments.

Democrats are strongly leaning toward moving to table the amendments if Republicans continue to object to holding votes, according to Harkin. "I just think that we’re going to have to, at some point, say enough is enough on the stall and we’re going to have to start voting; we’ll probably be tabling amendments," he said.

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