Senate Democrats unite for landmark healthcare vote

Healthcare reform entered the inevitability stage in the Senate during the wee hours of Monday morning as Democrats came together on a party-line vote to all but lock in passage of the legislation on Christmas Eve.

Though only a procedural vote, the 60-40 tally represents the first opportunity for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to demonstrate the he united his entire caucus of 58 Democrats and two independents in advancing President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative.

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Reid sought to place the moment in a human and historical context. “With this vote, we are rejecting a system in which one class of people can afford to stay healthy while another cannot. It demands for the first time in American history that good health will not depend on great wealth,” he said. “It acknowledges, finally, that healthcare is a fundamental right -- a human right -- and not just a privilege for the most fortunate.”

Amid a solemn atmosphere on the Senate floor, senators cast their votes from their desks, a custom traditionally reserved for only the weightiest matters.

The Senate actually voted Monday on Reid’s sweeping amendment to the healthcare reform bill that contains the final elements of compromise he needed to bring his divided caucus together. The Senate must stage two more votes that require 60 senators to support them before finally voting to pass the legislation, which likely will happen on Christmas Eve.

“The die is cast. It’s done,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who played a critical role in bridging the divide between the liberal and centrist factions in the Democratic caucus.

The legislation would spend $871 billion over 10 years to extend health insurance coverage to 31 million people while cutting Medicare and other program spending by $483 billion, raising $614 billion in new tax revenue and cut the federal budget deficit by $132 billion. The measure would create health insurance exchanges with subsidies for low- and middle-income people, expand Medicaid eligibility, enact strict new regulations on health insurers and put in place measures to reform the way healthcare services are delivered.

In the hours prior to the vote, Democrats and Republicans continued as they have for weeks, delivering partisan speeches and accusing each other, respectively, of obstructionism and bullying. There was little drama left in the proceedings, however, apart from the possibility that a senator might miss the vote due to the treacherous travel conditions in the aftermath of a major snowstorm that blanketed Washington on Saturday.

Republicans derided the bill as a massive, costly expansion of the federal government and blasted Reid for ramming the legislation through the Senate.

But the outcome of the vote, scheduled at the odd hour because of arcane Senate rules and Reid and Obama’s shared desire to move the bill before Christmas, was no surprise, which is surprising in itself as harmony on healthcare reform had eluded Senate Democrats all year.

“It’s a total vindication of Harry Reid’s strategy,” Schumer said after the vote. To bring Democrats together, and especially to keep liberals on board and making major concessions to centrists, “He appealed to their better angels and it worked,” Schumer said.

Early Saturday morning, Reid locked down a deal with centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to strengthen the bill’s restrictions on abortion benefits in plans that would be sold on the legislation’s health insurance exchange and provide additional Medicaid funding for Nebraska.


Nelson had long been the toughest vote to secure, mostly because of the abortion issue. Last Monday, Reid won over other centrists, such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) by dropping a proposal to create a government-run public option insurance program from the bill. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) had also cast doubt on his position for several weeks but affirmed on Sunday he planned to vote with his party on Monday.

Reid’s compromises with these centrists over the public option and abortion did not lose him the vote of a single liberal, however. Though several grumbled, they ultimately calculated that advancing a bill that achieves some of their priorities would be better than dooming the entire project to failure by withholding their vote.

After Reid cut the public option and a proposal to allow people between 55 and 64 to buy into Medicare, several liberals threatened to oppose the legislation, including those such as Sens. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who had staked out that position long ago. But these liberals wound up in a position of reluctant support, as did Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who issued a statement Sunday affirming he would vote to move the bill toward passage.

Looking down from the gallery was Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the “Lion of the Senate” and lifelong champion of healthcare reform who died this year.

After the vote, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chris Dodd, (D-Conn.) and others greeted her with embraces. “He’s smiling,” she said to Dodd. “You made history tonight.” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle accompanied Reggie Kennedy in the gallery.

This story was updated at 2:10 a.m.