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Senate Inches Toward Historic Health Care Vote

December 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With a 60-40 test vote early Monday morning to shut down a Republican filibuster, Senate Democrats moved closer to passing the broadest overhaul of the nation's health care system in a generation. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Senate Democrats cleared the way today to approve their health care reform bill. They did it with a middle-of-the-night party-line vote to force an end to debate.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser begins our coverage.

MAN: The clerk will call the roll.

CLERK: Mr. Akaka.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The test vote came shortly after 1:00 this morning, 60-40, to shut down a Republican filibuster. Democrats like Tom Harkin of Iowa celebrated.

SEN. TOM HARKIN, D-Iowa: We will get this passed before Christmas. And it will be one of the best Christmas presents this Congress has ever given the American people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hours later, at the White House, President Obama praised what he called an historic vote. And he touted the weekend analysis from the Congressional Budget Office saying the Senate measure would reduce the deficit.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For all those who are continually carping about how this is somehow a big-spending government bill, this cuts our deficit by $132 billion the first 10 years and by over a trillion in the second. That argument that opponents are making against this bill does not hold water.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: According to CBO estimates, the Senate bill would cost $871 billion over 10 years. It would also cover 31 million uninsured Americans, mandate that individuals buy insurance or pay a fine, provide tax credits to low-income Americans to help them afford coverage, and create an insurance exchange, where those who don’t get coverage through their employers can shop for a plan.

The bill doesn’t include a government-run public insurance option. And it doesn’t allow people as young as 55 to buy in early to Medicare, a proposal floated in recent weeks. Instead, it envisions nearly half-a-trillion dollars in Medicare spending cuts to help fund the new coverage.

Republicans, like John McCain of Arizona, warned today, it all means years of pain before any benefits.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: It’s one of the great Bernie Madoff gimmicks that I have ever seen, that anybody has ever seen. If the bill were signed by the president on the 1st of January, the taxes would kick in and the Medicare cuts and other cuts would kick in, and it wouldn’t be four years later that any of the benefits begin to accrue. What is that? That’s nutty stuff. And, by the way, it’s unacceptable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While the drama of Majority Leader Harry Reid scouring the Democratic ranks for the one final vote he needed was unfolding inside, outside, the Capitol was brought to its knees by a blinding snowstorm. Reid finally got that 60th vote from Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. Nelson made his support known Saturday morning.

SEN. BEN NELSON, D-Neb.: While each of my colleagues may differ on how to fix the system, I know of no members who are suggesting that the current system is satisfactory. I know of no member who doesn’t think that we need to change our health care system.

Where we differ — and I say so with great respect to all of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle — is in the way we fix our health care system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: To get Nelson on board, Reid had to include stricter language on abortion coverage in his final amendments. As a result, the bill allows states to opt out of plans that cover abortion in the new insurance exchanges, and those who enroll in plans that cover the procedure would have to pay for it separately.

Nelson also won a commitment from the federal government to cover the entire cost of Nebraska’s medication Medicaid expansion under the bill in perpetuity.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the deal-making at a Sunday afternoon news conference.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: Let me just say that the taxpayers of Kentucky are not excited, not at all excited, about having to underwrite the special deals that were apparently made for Nebraska, Vermont, and, we now learn, maybe Massachusetts.

So, I’m going to remind the taxpayers of our state that they’re subsidizing these other three states because their senators apparently extracted a price for passing this bill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even with the deal, Nelson and independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman warned, the Senate legislation must not be altered substantially when it’s merged with the more liberal House bill.

And the American Medical Association joined today in supporting the Senate version, after refusing to back the House bill. Meanwhile, Reid said talk about a conference was premature.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: We have to pass this bill in the Senate first. And that is our direction. That is our guiding light. And we will worry about next steps at a later time.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The next step in the path to passing a bill comes tomorrow morning, when the Senate will take another procedural vote.