Senate adjourns in first day of healthcare reconciliation debate

The Senate adjourned late Tuesday night after a chaotic seven hours of debate on a landmark healthcare reform reconciliation bill, with Democratic leaders inching towards a final vote by the end of the week.

The chamber adjourned about 10:30 p.m., with plans to reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday. In all, the Senate burned up more than seven-and-a-half hours of the 20 mandatory hours of debate required by the reconciliation process.

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Another long day and night of debate is expected Wednesday, possibly including an overnight session. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said a sustained round of voting on amendments and procedural objections -- known in Senate terms as a “vote-o-rama” -- could occur as early as Wednesday afternoon, although there is so far no agreement with Republicans on the voting process.

Senators got started about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday and started debate about an hour later under special parliamentary rules that allow bills to be passed with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of the supermajority threshold of 60 votes as normally required.

The GOP lost the first two procedural votes of the week-long debate, including a 56-40 vote to take up the bill. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has said he will oppose the bill, voted ‘No’ and was the only crossover vote from either party. Otherwise, the initial vote was a straight party-line ballot.

The evening was filled with sharp exchanges on the Senate floor. After 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.) filed an amendment to ban so-called “sweetheart” deals for several states — basically boosts in Medicaid, Medicare and public hospital funding — Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) took to the floor to accuse McCain of writing the amendment “for television or the Internet… not for any serious debate.”

“It is beneath the senator from Arizona, who at one time was a candidate for president of this country,” Landrieu said. “Normally the only time I see the word ‘sweetheart’ is when my husband sends me a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day… To actually draft an amendment like this that uses the words ‘sweetheart deal’ is really an insult to the people of our country, and I would expect more from him.”

Landrieu has received harsh criticism for seeking a boost in Medicaid funds for Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, and has explained that she did so at the request of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.).

Republicans fought furiously, however — filing four motions that were still pending at evening’s close, as well as another 13 that could be taken up on Wednesday. Nine of those amendments were filed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) alone.

The amendments threaten Democratic leaders’ goal to wrap up the bill by the weekend. Under reconciliation rules, 20 hours of debate must first expire before procedural objects are then raised.

Another prominent GOP amendment filed Tuesday was by Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, who said he wanted to protect the federal Medicare system from being “raided.” Gregg’s amendment would send any savings produced by the Democratic plan back into the plan.

“This bill as it passed the House was an atrocity. It was an explosion of government, the likes of which we have never seen in this country before,” Gregg said. “It grows the government by $2.6 trillion. In the process, it will interfere with almost every American who has private health insurance and how they get their insurance. And it will take Americans who have health insurance today and it will push them out of that health insurance as the small employers across this country decide that they can no longer afford it.”