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.