HEALTH REFORM -- December 24, 2009 at 7:28 AM EDT
Senate Passes Historic Health Care Reform Legislation
Updated 9:52 a.m. ET
The Senate passed historic health care reform legislation in an early-morning vote Thursday, just making Democratic leaders' self-imposed Christmas deadline after a marathon 25 straight days in session.
"This morning isn't the end of the process, it's merely the beginning," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor before the vote. "But that process cannot begin unless we start today."
The $871 billion measure passed in a party-line vote as expected, 60 to 39 -- every Republican present voted against it, while the entire Democratic caucus voted for it, along with two Independents.
In a nod to the importance of the legislation, Vice President Biden presided over the vote, which took place just after 7 a.m. ET.
The bill would vastly change the U.S. health care system, expanding insurance coverage to 94 percent of Americans with tighter regulations on insurance companies, federal subsidies to help people buy insurance in new state-based insurance marketplaces, and a requirement that nearly every individual purchase insurance or be subject to a penalty.
President Obama praised the legislation in a statement shortly after the vote.
"With passage of reform bills in both the House and the Senate, we are now finally poised to deliver on the promise of real, meaningful health insurance reform that will bring additional security and stability to the American people," the president said.
Republicans continued to decry the bill from the Senate floor in the minutes leading up to the vote -- and promised to continue to work to defeat it.
"This debate was supposed to produce a bill that reformed health care, instead we're left with party-line votes in the middle of the night," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I promise you that the people who voted for this bill are going to get an earful [from constituents] when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving."
But Reid countered with the example of a young boy, Caleb, with a pre-existing condition that meant he could not get health insurance right now.
"I'll get an earful from Caleb and his parents ... an earful of joy and happiness," Reid said.
The vote sets the stage for negotiations with the House to begin after Congress returns from its break in January. The House passed similar legislation last month, but key differences remain to be worked out -- including stricter abortion funding restrictions in the House version, and the absence of a government-run public insurance option in the Senate's bill.
President Barack Obama is expected to make a statement on the bill's passage later Thursday morning. In an interview with the NewsHour Wednesday, the president voiced optimism that the House and Senate versions of the bills could be reconciled, saying he would "absolutely" be involved in the negotiations.
"There are a lot of provisions that are both in the Senate and the House bill," the president said. "I actually think that reconciling them is not going to be as difficult as some people may anticipate."