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Senate on track to approve health bill

Anna Edney and Dan Friedman | Congress Daily via Government Executive

December 21, 2009

The Senate is on track to achieve one of President Obama’s top priorities this year, a major overhaul of the country’s healthcare system.

The Senate is expected to hold a series of votes this week on the legislation, with final passage set for Christmas Eve unless Republicans relent and allow an early vote.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., admitted Sunday on Fox News the GOP cannot stop the bill now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has 60 votes for it, but he indicated they are intent on stretching out the debate, giving Republicans as much time as possible to bash the bill.

“But what we can do is continue winning the battle of American public opinion,” McCain said. “We will fight until the last vote because we owe that to our constituents. We must look back and say we did everything we can to prevent this terrible mistake.”

Reid got that 60th vote Friday night when he reached a compromise with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., on language regarding federal funding of abortion.

The abortion language allows states to elect to prohibit abortion coverage in the exchanges and requires those plans that offer abortion coverage to collect separate checks from enrollees to ensure federal subsidies are not used to cover the procedure.

Reid also gave Nelson a sweetener, directing the federal government to pick up the entire cost of the Medicaid expansion in Nebraska. The bill expands Medicaid to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

After reaching the agreement with Nelson, Reid won a raucous ovation from Senate Democrats as he rose to address them in a special meeting on Saturday.

Passage of the bill will be a major victory for Reid, who has overseen talks since the Finance Committee passed the measure in October. Reid cinched the deal with Nelson just days after some observers claimed the effort was near collapse and about a month after Democrats’ division over the public option meant no compromise on the measure, at the time, could get 60 votes.

A bloc of liberals opposed dropping it and several moderates vowed to oppose a bill with a public option.

House abortion rights leaders are opposed to the Nelson language, just as they are to more restrictive House language proposed by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., co-chairwomen of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said they have “serious reservations” about the Nelson language.

“This provision is not only offensive to people who believe in choice, but it is also possibly unconstitutional,” DeGette and Slaughter said.

DeGette’s spokesman said it might be unconstitutional because it discriminates against women by restricting their access to abortions. The caucus is having their lawyers review the language.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., meanwhile, said they look forward to reviewing the bill.

“The Senate legislation has been strengthened during the course of the past few weeks, and Sen. Reid is to be commended for moving this process forward,” the House leaders said.

After finishing with health care, the Senate will likely seek to take up a $290 billion increase in the statutory debt limit. The Treasury Department has projected that the nation is expected to hit the $12.1 trillion debt limit by the end of the year.

Democrats are threatening to hold a rare session between Christmas and New Years if Republicans do not sign onto an agreement to allow quick passage of a short-term extension of the debt limit immediately after the final healthcare vote.

“We would like to do it before we leave for Christmas, but if Republicans do not cooperate, then we will have to come back between the week of Christmas and New Years to consider the legislation,” a Senate leadership aide said Sunday.

A quick debt-limit vote would require unanimous consent. The desire to head home enhances the chances of a such an agreement, but GOP anger over the endgame on health care and Republicans’ hopes to make political hay of the debt limit threaten to keep senators in Washington during their normal down-time.

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., wants to offer four amendments to the debt-limit bill, including legislation to create a commission to recommend to Congress ways to lower the deficit.

The Senate Saturday morning cleared the fiscal 2010 Defense spending bill 88-10, sending the measure to Obama for his signature and wrapping up work on the fiscal 2010 Appropriations process.

The package includes the $636 billion Defense bill, and two-month extensions of various programs including unemployment insurance, COBRA health benefits, a fix to Medicare payments to physicians, surface transportation act funding, flood insurance and Small Business Administration loans. The package also contains funding for the administration of the food stamp program and a 90-day extension of a law governing transmission of broadcast television signals via satellite services.

The Senate on Saturday also approved, by voice vote, a short-term continuing resolution, which was passed by the House last week and expires Wednesday, to give Obama time to review the measure and sign it into law. The previous CR expired Friday.

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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