In the end, only one thing was more concerning to Republican opponents of healthcare reform than blocking action by the Senate: the threat of an interruption in their travel plans.

After months of throwing every roadblock they could in the way of any reform, and weeks of specific action to scuttle Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s legislation, the “Party of No” said “yes” to an earlier than expected vote on the Senate bill because weather reports indicated that further delays might make it difficult to get home for Christmas.

And so the great moral struggle over “creeping socialism,” “death panels” and all the other ills imagined by GOP senators came to a conclusion.

By a 60-39 margin the Senate approved Reid’s compromise bill, which many progressives thought was too weak but which Republicans had suggested was a sort end-of-the-world disaster in the making.

But, disaster or not, the Grand Old Party had a grand old Christmas party to get to, so Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, dropped his party’s pretenses and allowed a rushed vote Thursday morning so that senators could rush out of Washington.

McConnell’s Republican colleague from Kentucky, Jim Bunning, didn’t even show up for the vote — although 92-year-old Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, did. The dignified Byrd, who had wagged his finger and grumbled “Shame! Shame!” at Republicans for their shenanigans during the debate, embraced the historic moment early Thursday.

Byrd is the only member of the current Senate who was there when Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy joined the chamber in 1963. Kennedy, “the lion of the Senate” and its most ardent champion of healthcare reform, died during this year’s battle. But his widow, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, was in the gallery for Thursday’s vote.

Byrd was also the only member of the current Senate who participated in the chamber’s previous Christmas Eve vote, a 1963 pre-Vietnam War debate.

It fell to Reid, who held together a fragile coalition is differing Democrats through sometimes bitter — and frequently disappointing — wrangling to “get to 60,” get a vote and get the Senate on record for reform.

“It’s been a long, hard road for all of us,” said the majority leader, who spoke while surrouned by most of the members of his caucus. “This debate has been dominated by partisanship and politics, but I don’t see this as 60 Democrats versus 40 Republicans. I see it as 60 leaders who stood up to insurance companies and stood up for working families all across America.”

Among those standing with Reid were some profoundly disappointed progressives. Some had pondered voting “no,” but in the end they all voted “yes.” Most cited the bills strengths — expansion of access to care for tens of millions of Americans, some new insurance regulations and smart innovations like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan to build up a network of public-health clinics.

“Despite the bill’s flaws, it does meet the test of real reform, and the cost of inaction was much too high,” said Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin.

A few Democrats quietly acknowledged that they simply got fed up with the games the Republicans were playing.

Ultimately, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who last week had made the best case against voting for the Senate healthcare reform bill, this week made the best case for backing the bill.

“Honestly, to see the Republicans up there carrying on the way they are, I basically concluded that maybe we should pass this thing,” the former Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate said shortly before Thursday morning’s 60-40 vote for the Senate bill.

The Party of No’s over-the-top opposition, which delayed the vote until Christmas eve with bizarro claims that the plan might be unconstitutional, led Dean to declare: “If the Republicans hate it, there must be some good to it.”

Dean argued that the legislation had been improved in the week he he proposed killing the bill after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, eliminated the public option as a concession to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman.

“(Senators) tightened up cost control, money was added for community health centers… and increased doctor reimbursements to rural physicians,” said the former DNC chair. “So they’ve done a number of things that will make this approach more likely to work.”

Thursday’s vote was not really an end, but rather a new beginning.

A House-Senate conference committee will now be charged with reconciling very different measures from the two chambers.

That’s going to be a bitter process, which could pit Democrat against Democrat.

There is anger in the House with the Senate compromises made by Reid to get his bill passed.

“The Senate healthcare bill is not worthy of the historic vote that the House took a month ago,” wrote Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, D-New York, in a recent opinion piece.

The chairwoman of the House Rules Committee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, worried openly that the flaws in the Senate bill were so severe that they could not be resolved by a conference committee. “Supporters of the weak Senate bill say ‘just pass it — any bill is better than no bill,'” wrote Slaughter. “I strongly disagree — a conference report is unlikely to sufficiently bridge the gap between these two very different bills.”

Slaughter may be right.

But that’s for President Obama to decide.

If the president and his aides finally wade into the debate — after offering rhetoric and little more during the congressional battle that played out across most of 2009 — the administration might be able to tip the balance in favor of a reconciled bill that takes the best elements of the House and Senate measures.

The Republicans, hypocritical as ever, will come back from their Christmas break with “no” on their lips.

In a very real sense, the healthcare debate is now an inside-the-Democratic-party battle. And it will only be resolved right if the top Democrat takes a strong stand for the sort of reform he campaigned for in 2008.