A bleary 1 a.m. vote Friday morning to advance a massive defense spending bill sets up a procedural sprint to vote on healthcare reform in the Senate before Christmas.
If all goes as planned by Democratic leaders – a big “if” in a body highly skilled in arcane procedural warfare – the Senate will pass the $626 billion defense bill at 8 a.m. on Saturday, then move to key procedural votes on healthcare at 1 a.m. Monday, 8 a.m. Tuesday, and 1 p.m. Wednesday, with a vote on final passage on Christmas Eve, according to a senior Democratic aide.
But each of these votes requires 60 votes. If all 40 Republican senators are united in opposition, Democrats will need every vote in their caucus.
Democrats' hunt for the 60th vote has dominated Senate corridors for weeks. Early this week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut was the key holdout. No way would he vote for a bill that included a public option, so Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that the bill taken to the floor would drop it, in favor of expanding access to Medicare. Senator Lieberman said he couldn’t accept that, either, so the majority leader said he would drop that as well. So was it 60? Not quite.
“I’m grateful the public option and expansion of Medicare are out, but I haven’t seen the whole manager's amendment,” Lieberman said Thursday night – a reference to the package of changes and compromises that Senator Reid will bring to the floor.
But the Connecticut senator wasn't the only challenge. Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska lapped Lieberman as the No. 1 holdout when he told a Nebraska radio station that the compromise language to ban public funding of abortion wasn’t strong enough to win his vote. Reid assigned Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, another opponent of abortion rights, to work out a compromise. The new deal includes help for pregnant teens and tax credits to encourage adoption.
"These are valuable improvements that will make a positive difference and promote life,” Senator Nelson said in a statement Thursday. “But as it is, without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient."
As part of the effort to secure a 60th vote, President Obama met with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine for an hour and a half at the White House on Thursday. They spoke again for half an hour on the phone before the president’s evening flight to Copenhagen, Denmark. But she’s not on board, either.
“The legislation is going in a direction I didn’t support in committee,” she said Thursday evening. “I told the president I will continue to work, but the timing – final vote before Christmas – is completely unrealistic."
Meanwhile, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, while not revealing the procedural strategy he will pursue on the floor, says he will use every means to stop this bill.
"[Democrats are] trying to round up 60 votes to do something that is overwhelmingly unpopular with the American people and particularly – particularly – unpopular with older Americans," he said at a press briefing Wednesday. “The American people are asking us not to make a historic mistake."
The Senate got a glimpse of how tough procedural politics can be on Wednesday, when Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont introduced an amendment to propose a single-payer system for healthcare – the first time such a proposal ever reached the floor of the House or Senate. The Vermont senator, who caucuses with Democrats, began with a routine request to dispense with reading the amendment. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma objected. Since forgoing the reading required unanimous consent, the clerk began going through the 767-page amendment. Near Hour 2, Senator Sanders relented and withdrew the amendment.
Yet it wasn’t over: GOP leaders said that ending the reading also required unanimous consent. But Democrats found an obscure 1992 precedent to make their case.
“The Senate has very few rules but thousands of precedents. And any senator that finds a precedent – not matter how old or obscure it is – they have a basis to go forward,” says Senate historian Donald Ritchie.
Democrats are preparing for a long battle. “The bills we used to do in a day or an hour now take weeks,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, commenting on the harsh partisan atmosphere in the Senate.
“Everything has been delayed, so the Senate can’t move. In 17 years, I’ve never seen this,” she said Thursday evening.
But Republicans aren’t the only force of nature threatening to tie up the Senate majority’s plan. The National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning, including up to 10 inches of snow, sleet, ice, and strong winds Saturday for the capital – when in the past, Washington has shut down over a few inches of powder. “This will make travel very hazardous or impossible,” the warning concludes.
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