Healthcare bill headed back to the House after marathon Senate push

Senate Democrats defeated 29 straight Republican amendments to the Democratic healthcare reconciliation bill before losing a key parliamentary ruling in Thursday’s early hours that will force the legislation back to the House of Representatives.

Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin sustained two GOP objections to two minor sections of a Pell Grant provision in the student loan part of the bill intended to change the original healthcare reform bill passed by both chambers.

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The Senate held 10 hours of continuous, marathon voting starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with Republicans trying throughout to lodge a successful objection to the bill to force its return to the lower chamber. The bill’s passage by the House is a safe bet, prompting Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to call Frumin’s ruling “a consolation prize.”

Democrats said Frumin’s ruling was expected and that any verdict of a Republican victory was an exaggeration.

“I don’t think anything happened that wasn’t predictable,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “We’re not surprised.”

The Senate adjourned at 3 a.m., and is scheduled to reconvene at 9:45 a.m. Thursday and continue debating amendments until a final vote at 2 p.m.; attention would be turned to points-of-order objections, with Republicans eyeing up to three possible parliamentary violations in the bill. If final passage is approved, the bill would then go to the House; final passage there would send the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had vowed to push toward a final vote in Thursday’s early hours, after Democrats successfully fought off GOP amendments to preserve the bill intact and prevent a House vote before it adjourns for its spring recess. The House already approved the reconciliation bill last weekend.

Earlier Wednesday evening, Democrats locked down on vote after vote on GOP amendments that would have shrinked or repealed altogether the healthcare reform bill passed by the Senate last December and by the House on a 219-212 vote last weekend. As of 3 a.m. Thursday, the chamber had defeated 29 straight Republican proposals and adopted none.

Although 20 hours of debate are normally required under reconciliation rules, Democrats cut that short by surrendering their half of that time on Wednesday morning — and GOP leaders decided later in the day against a strategy of filing repeated amendments.

Democratic leaders are moving the bill through the Senate under special parliamentary rules, known as the reconciliation process, under which they only need to amass 51 votes, meaning they can afford to lose several members of their party.

Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Nelson of Nebraska strayed frequently from their party during Wednesday night’s voting. Bayh, who is retiring, crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans 10 times. Lincoln, who faces a tough re-election race, supported Republicans eight times. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia also bucked his party three times.

Nelson, who has come under fire from the conservative base of his state for his support of the healthcare reform effort, supported the GOP the most — on 20 out of 29 votes as of the 3 a.m. adjournment.

Nelson said he had informed Reid of his votes beforehand.

“I evaluate each of these amendments individually. I didn’t agree to be part of a bloc, to vote a certain way,” Nelson said of his votes. “I’m interested in the other side’s ideas, and I agree with them on a number of them.

“I think the leadership and my colleagues know that I had some reservations about the bill, although I’m not backing away from my support of the bill. There were pieces and parts of it that I didn’t agree with, and if I have a chance to do something there, I have and I will and will continue in the future.”

In 10 hours of voting, only three Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats — Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and George Voinovich of Ohio, who supported Democrats in blocking an amendment by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) that would have allowed Medicare patients to opt out of receiving certain benefits.

Senators began voting at 5 p.m. and rarely left the chamber over the next several hours, venturing only into the cloakrooms and only occasionally into the hallways where several members had hideaway offices nearby.

In contrast to floor speeches delivered during the afternoon and on Tuesday, Wednesday night’s voting was often marked by levity and was rarely tense. At one point, after Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) gave a tongue-in-cheek speech in favor of one GOP amendment, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) responded by teasing Roberts over the University of Kansas’s recent loss in the NCAA basketball tournament.

The evening’s mood suggested a foregone conclusion; Republicans privately conceded that the bill was on its way to passage and said they weren’t surprised at the overwhelming defeat of their amendments. Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated by munching on lobster rolls from Legal Seafood in their cloakroom in honor of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had championed healthcare reform for much of his 47-year career.

Asked how voters should regard the Republican attempts to amend the bill, Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer said, “much ado about nothing.”

The various Republican proposals would have stripped or altered certain provisions in the bill, and many were intended to put Democrats in tough voting positions going into this fall’s elections.

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) proposed preventing Medicare cuts, for example, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed striking all special provisions for states in the bill and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) proposed an amendment to prohibit any taxes for middle-income families. Gregg’s amendment failed, 42-56; McCain’s proposal failed, 43-54, and Crapo’s failed, 43-56.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) also proposed striking a mandate that small businesses offer health insurance, which failed, 41-58; Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) tried to prohibit any insurance premium increases, which failed, 41-57; Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) filed an amendment to reduce interest rates for student loans, which failed, 41-58; Sen. George LeMieux (Fla.) proposed steering members of Congress into Medicaid, which failed, 40-59; and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) proposed allowing states to opt-out of the new healthcare law. That failed on a 41-58 vote.

One amendment that received perhaps the most early attention: a proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) to prohibit Viagra from being distributed to convicted sex offenders. That failed on a 42-57 vote.

In all, as of the 3 a.m. adjournment, the closest Republicans came to a successful vote was a 46-52 vote on an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) to strip an investment tax from the bill.

Besides the reconciliation bill, senators are still expected to pass an extension of unemployment benefits which are currently scheduled to expire at the end of the month.

This story has been updated from an earlier version