By Jeffrey Young - 12/23/09 09:33 PM EST
The Senate on Wednesday cleared the last procedural hurdle on landmark
healthcare reform legislation and is positioned to pass the bill on
Democrats united against Republicans, voting 60-39 to end debate on the underlying bill. No Republicans voted for cloture. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) was absent.
“It’s been a long, hard road for all of us,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the votes. “We stand a few short steps from the most significant finish line we’ve had in Congress in many decades.”
Then lawmakers enter the final phase — a conference committee to reconcile the bills approved by the House and Senate.
On Wednesday the Senate also rejected a point of order raised by Republican Sens. John Ensign (Nev.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) questioning the bill’s constitutionality, a point of order by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) charging that Reid violated Senate rules by not expressly disclosing provisions in the bill earmarked for specific senators, a point of order from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that the bill violated congressional budget rules, and an attempt by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to prohibit offering legislative provisions to win a senator’s vote.
In order to get to final passage, the Senate had to overcome three Republican filibusters, each one requiring the unanimous support of 58 Democrats and the two Independents who caucus with them.
The final vote was initially set for 7 p.m. Thursday but Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) forged a time agreement Tuesday enabling the Senate to hold morning votes on healthcare and on raising the federal debt ceiling. That also allowed senators and staff to begin their holiday a few hours earlier and avoid leaving town late on Christmas Eve.
When Congress returns from a three-week break, House and Senate Democratic leaders will work to reconcile their differences and send the final version to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The goal is to get the president the bill before his State of the Union address, which traditionally is in late January or early February but Reid would not reveal his thinking about the reconciling the two bills. “My eyes are focused on tomorrow morning. There will be proceedings after tomorrow morning, but I'll worry about those after tomorrow morning,” he said.
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) later acknowledged that timeframe might not be realistic. “I’m not sure it is because, I mean, let’s be very honest about this: We need a break. We need a break to go home to our families, to repair some of our relationships with our spouses and to relax and recharge and come back,” he said.
“I think we’ll have a much more positive outcome after that break but it does take time away in January and it may mean that this takes a little longer,” Durbin said.
Durbin declined to predict when final action would occur. “No deadlines – boy have I learned that,” he said. “I have announced three or four solid deadlines during the course of this and have eaten my words every time.”
Senate Democratic leaders have not decided when to name conferees or whether to return to Washington during the holiday recess to continue laying the groundwork for a compromise with the House, Durbin added.
The Senate bill 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 cutting 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.
This article was updated at 5:50 p.m.