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Senate Democrats Move Forward On Crucial Health Vote

With no margin for rebellion, Senate Democrats pushed toward a crucial weekend test vote on their sweeping health care bill Friday, and wavering moderates appeared to be falling in line on President Barack Obama's signature issue.

Stethescope and money
Stethescope and money

One of three uncommitted centrists, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, announced he'd vote with his party's leaders on Saturday's must-pass procedural measure allowing debate to go forward.

Nelson said it didn't necessarily mean he'd back the final bill but did mean Nebraskans wanted changes to the health care system. "The Senate owes them a full and open debate," he said.

The nearly $1 trillion, 10-year Senate bill would extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, bar insurance company practices like denying coverage to people with medical conditions and require nearly all Americans to purchase insurance.

Sixty votes in the 100-seat Senate are required to clear Saturday's vote, meaning that all 58 Senate Democrats and the two independents that generally vote with them will need to hold together. All 40 Republicans are united in opposition.

"We are not assuming a thing. We are working hard to bring all Democrats together for the 60 votes necessary to proceed to this historic debate," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. "I'm hoping that we can muster our ranks."

Nelson has been one of just three question marks in recent days, along with fellow moderate Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Landrieu has made comments suggesting she'd allow debate to begin so the spotlight was on Lincoln, who's facing a difficult re-election next year.

Durbin initially said Friday that Lincoln had informed Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., how she plans to vote. Durbin later issued a statement backtracking, contending that his remarks were "incorrectly interpreted."

A spokeswoman for Lincoln, Leah Vest DiPietro, said Lincoln had not decided how to vote and no other senator could speak for her. "She is reviewing the bill before determining how she will vote Saturday," DiPietro said.

Republicans sought to increase the discomfort for the moderate Democrats. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., noted at a news conference that national polls show at best a split on the health care bill. "We hope our more moderate colleagues on the Democratic side would respect the wishes of their constituents, rather than do the bidding of Harry Reid," Kyl said.

Ahead of the vote, Republicans and Democrats spent Friday trading barbs on the Senate floor over the 2,074-page bill. Republicans displayed the Senate bill and the 1,990-page House bill -- stacked on top of each other to form a tall pile -- to criticize the legislation as an unwarranted government intrusion. Democrats defended their plan and blasted Republicans for not producing a bill of their own.

"These insurance changes will increase costs for millions of Americans," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "The voices of August are still out there, and they know this bill is just more of the same."

Dismissing Republican criticism, Durbin said, "The Republican health care reform bill is zero pages long because it has zero ideas."

The House earlier this month passed its own health overhaul bill on a 220-215 vote. After Saturday's vote, senators will leave Washington for a weeklong Thanksgiving recess, and return for a lengthy and unpredictable debate on the measure, with dozens of amendments expected from both sides.

Both the House and Senate bills would set up new purchasing marketplaces called exchanges where self-employed or uninsured individuals and small businesses could shop for insurance, including the choice of a new government insurance plan.

Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report
Healthy Horizons -- A Special Report

Both pieces of legislation would rely on more than $400 billion in cuts to Medicare over 10 years to pay for them.

The Senate would tax high-cost insurance plans, drug companies and elective cosmetic surgery and raise the Medicare payroll tax on income over $200,000 per year for individuals and $250,000 for couples. The House approach would raise income taxes on the highest-earning individuals and households.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Friday that Senate leaders will support an amendment he plans to offer to allow certain low-income people with offers of employer health coverage to shop in the purchasing exchanges instead.

Wyden had not committed to voting for Saturday's procedural motion prior to securing the commitment from Reid to support his amendment. The amendment would extend health coverage to 1 million more people who would not otherwise have been able to afford the coverage offered by their employers, according to Wyden's spokeswoman.

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