Senate Dems moving ahead on crucial health vote
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON – A wavering centrist Democrat said Friday he’d stand with Senate Democratic leaders on a crucial weekend test vote on their sweeping health care bill amid indications other moderates would fall in line.
The announcement from Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., came as Senate leaders pushed ahead toward the make-or-break vote with no margin for rebellion on President Barack Obama’s signature issue.
Nelson said in a statement that his support for the procedural measure allowing debate to go forward didn’t mean he’d back the final bill, but that 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 individuals to purchase insurance.
Sixty votes are required to clear Saturday’s must-pass procedural vote, meaning that all 58 Senate Democrats and the two independents that generally vote with them will need to hold together. Republicans are united in opposition.
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“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 is now on Lincoln, who’s facing a difficult re-election next year.
Durbin said Friday that Lincoln has informed Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., how she plans to vote. “She’s told Sen. Reid,” he said. Durbin wouldn’t disclose Lincoln’s answer and a spokeswoman for Lincoln, Leah Vest DiPietro, said: “No other senator speaks for Senator Lincoln. She is still reviewing the bill.”
Durbin later issued a statement backtracking and contending that his remarks were “incorrectly interpreted.”
“Let me be clear: Sen. Lincoln has had a number of conversations with Sen. Reid about the health care reform legislation,” Durbin’s statement said. “But Sen. Lincoln has not yet signaled her intention as to how she will vote on (Saturday’s) cloture motion.”
Ahead of Saturday’s 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.