By Alexander Bolton - 12/18/09 01:27 AM EST
The Senate is heading toward a Christmas Eve vote to pass landmark healthcare legislation, but instead of holiday cheer, Democrats and Republicans are digging in for trench warfare.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is determined to finish work before the Christmas holiday and has set a schedule that would end with a final vote on the evening of Dec. 24.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has told colleagues that he will not give any ground on procedural hurdles and is prepared to call Reid’s bluff on a Christmas Eve vote, said a senior GOP aide. Some Republicans say they will also require Democrats to return to Washington the following week to approve an increase of the debt limit.
“If the majority leader wants to schedule a vote Christmas Eve, that’s unfortunate, but Senate Republicans will not make it easier for them to try and pass this historic mistake,” McConnell said in a statement to The Hill.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) predicted this week that leaders would be able to muster 60 votes to pass healthcare by Christmas, though they are not there yet.
Democrats must approve three separate motions requiring 60 votes to cut off a GOP filibuster of the healthcare bill, and they are between one and three votes short.
The latest hurdle emerged Thursday when centrist Democrat Ben Nelson (Neb.) said he would not vote to advance the bill unless it included stricter language on abortion provisions.
“If it’s not at the point where I think it needs to be with the improvements that I’m pushing — and they’ve made a lot of them — then I will not vote for cloture on the motion to end debate,” Nelson said in an interview on KLIN radio in Nebraska.
Reid must also win over at least two liberals who are disappointed with Reid’s decision to scrap both a government-run insurance program and a proposal to allow people as young as 55 to buy Medicare coverage. Reid was forced to drop those provisions to gain support from centrists.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among the chamber’s most liberal members, has said he will oppose the legislation. But it is not clear whether he would simply vote against the bill on final passage, which requires only a majority of senators, or if he will join Republicans in a filibuster.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has also refrained from saying how he’ll vote, noting he wants to review the legislation and a forthcoming analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). As of press time Thursday, the CBO score had yet to be unveiled.
Time is fast running out. Democrats have discussed an around-the-clock voting schedule, which begins at 1 a.m. on Friday and could end after 7 p.m. on Dec. 24, to get the healthcare bill and the annual defense-spending bill passed.
The first big test is expected at 1 a.m. Monday, when the Senate would vote on the final changes to the healthcare bill that are packaged in a manager’s amendment. If Reid fails to rally his entire conference for that vote, or offset any defectors with an equal number of Republicans, the game is up and Democrats go home without advancing President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.
Reid has picked up the crucial support of some outside groups in the final hours of the debate. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern on Thursday called for the Senate to pass the healthcare bill, despite the union’s misgivings about it.
“We’re for putting the bill into conference,” Stern said on a teleconference call. “We don’t like the bill. It has to be improved. But we don’t think that these senators are going to do any better.”
Stern’s comments came a day after SEIU pulled out of an event scheduled with other organizations to tout the Senate health bill.
Some Democrats hope that frustration over what they call GOP obstructionism will unify centrists and liberals to pass the bill.
A sign of growing Democratic unity in the face of Republican opposition came Wednesday when Sanders withdrew an amendment he offered to set up a single-payer healthcare system after Republicans forced a time-consuming reading of the 767-page amendment. Sanders’s gesture of teamwork, despite his opposition to the underlying bill, showed his willingness to help Democrats overcome procedural hurdles.
Also on Wednesday, nearly 30 Democrats rushed to the floor to second a series of amendments to the defense-spending bill. Usually only a few lawmakers bother to show up to second such motions, which are normally pro-forma procedures, but the charged atmosphere has created a new sense of urgency.
“I do think it’s galvanizing the Democrats and focusing us on what our mission is,” said Sen. Mark Begich, a centrist Democrat from Alaska. Begich said he encouraged Reid to schedule a 1 a.m. vote on the military spending bill to speed the pace of work.
But Republicans say Democratic efforts to push a massive healthcare overhaul through the Senate in the next few days has stiffened their resolve and unified their conference.
“You’re not going to take a bill this important and put it out and immediately file a motion to end the debate as soon as you put in on the floor and expect us to say, ‘Let’s do that,’ ” said Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee.
“I think you’ll see all 40 Republicans standing together, which we rarely do, which only tells you one thing: that this is a terrible bill and a completely unfair process,” he said.
Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.