WASHINGTON, D.C. — A procedural vote to bring health care reform legislation to the Senate floor for debate — the first test vote on such legislation in that body — passed Saturday by the narrowest possible margin.
Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken joined the rest of their party caucus members in voting to move the measure forward, while every Republican voted against it. Sixty votes were needed, and the final vote was 60-39 (Republican George Voinovich of Ohio was absent).
“This was a historical vote, but this is a beginning not an ending,” Klobuchar said, adding that in terms of sheer size and impact this was the biggest vote she had cast since arriving in the Senate in 2007.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats “can see the finish line” and “have the momentum that’s going to keep this process going.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell promised before the vote that this would not be his party’s last word on the issue. “We’re going to do anything and everything we can to prevent this bill from becoming law,” he said, all-but guaranteeing that Democrats will have to overcome a filibuster attempt if they are to bring the bill before the Senate for an up-or-down vote.
Throughout the day, Republicans hammered away at several provisions they found objectionable. There was the tax increase on medical devices expected to raise $20 billion over the next 10 years. There was the tax on drugs sold through government programs — a provision that GOP leaders said would even extend to the H1N1 flu vaccine.
Their rhetorical flourishes abounded. Arizona Sen. John McCain said the bill was similar to the kind of fraud that put convicted Ponzi scheme master Bernard Madoff behind bars. Florida Sen. George LeMieux compared the delayed effect of portions of the bill to a health care layaway plan. North Carolina’s Richard Burr, holding aloft all 2,047 pages of the bill, said the bill was a turkey — a convenient comparison because the measure weighs about the same as a large Thanksgiving turkey when one prints out every page.
At the end of the night, however, Republican rhetoric was overwhelmed by sheer Democratic numbers. It’s an encouraging sign, if history is any indication. Lawmakers have had to vote to begin debate on 41 bills since 1999 and all but one eventually passed the Senate.
In procedural terms, however, all Senate Democrats earned was a chance at another 60-vote-required showdown — this time to end debate and proceed to a vote. Two in the Democratic caucus who voted with the majority tonight — Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas — have said they’ll support efforts to filibuster the bill if it continues to contain some form of public insurance option. Two more, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, noted repeatedly that though they voted to advance the legislation, leadership shouldn’t count on their votes again unless several changes are made during the amendment process.
There’s only one Republican senator believed to be swayable, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, and she voted with the rest of her party against even bringing the bill to the floor.
Between now and that vote to end debate — which has yet to be scheduled, though Democratic leaders hope it will come before Christmas — the Senate is expected to consider dozens, maybe hundreds of amendments. Klobuchar and Franken both have amendments in mind, including on Medicare fraud and incentives for medical students to work in rural areas or specialize in primary care.
“Make no mistake. This bill will change,” Franken said in a speech on the Senate floor six hours before the vote. “There will be amendments to it that make it an even better bill. And there may be amendments that make it less to my liking, and therefore a less good bill from my point of view. But the final bill will make health care available to tens of millions more Americans.”
Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent. He can be reached at dwallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.