Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “got to 60” at 1:08 Monday morning, clearing a key Republican hurdle and keeping the Senate’s version of a health-care reform bill on track for passage before Christmas.
The 60-40 vote for cloture sets up a rapid process of debating and voting that, despite Republican “Party of No” opposition should secure passage of the compromised legislation before the Holiday.
Reid was at his most epic, declaring moments before the cloture vote that: “This isn’t about partisanship or procedure. It’s not about politics, and it’s not about polling. It is about people. It’s about life and death in America. It’s about human suffering. And given the chance to relieve this suffering, we must.”
It was also about scoring what veteran Hill watchers described as “the biggest victory of his tenure as Senate Democratic leader.”
But, while Reid appears to have a bill, and a remarkable legislative accomplishment, he does not have a happy caucus. Even as they voted for the measure, progressive senators were saying they hoped reform would not ultimately look like the bill they are now rushing to passage.
Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, a key member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, described himself as “very disappointed” by the broad concessions Reid made to get centrists such as Connecticut Indepebdent Joe Lieberman and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson on board.
But the most frustrated Democrat was Senator Russ Feingold, who announced late Sunday that he would cast critical votes for a health-care reform bill that is far weaker than what he had wanted.
To a greater extent than any backer of proposals to establish a government-run “public option,” the Wisconsin Democrat had wavered on whether to support a Senate bill that fails to establish competition for private insurers that will be enriched by “reform.”
While Feingold called the compromise a “bitter pill,” he said he would back a bill that expands access to coverage and care for millions of uninsured Americans. But the senator was having none of the back-patting that some Democrats were engaging in as the middle-of-the-night cloture vote approached.
Instead, Feingold spoke openly about those who had undermined the cause of real reform. In so doing, he placed explicit blame for the weakness of the Senate bill where it belongs — with the Obama administration.
It is no secret that the White House abandoned efforts to pass a real reform measure weeks ago. Indeed, President Obama’s December 6 speech to Democratic senators — in which he failed to express support either for a government-supported public option or expansion of Medicare — was seen by many of Capitol Hill as having strengthened the hand of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who demanded that measures designed to hold private insurers to account by stripped from the Senate bill.
While other Democratic senators have been cautious about stating the obvious, Feingold pulled no punches in his response to the watered-down legislation being advanced by Reid, with whom he has historically had very good relations.
“I’ve been fighting all year for a strong public option to compete with the insurance industry and bring health care spending down. I continued that fight during recent negotiations, and I refused to sign onto a deal to drop the public option from the Senate bill. Unfortunately, the lack of support from the administration made keeping the public option in the bill an uphill struggle,” the senator said. “Removing the public option from the Senate bill is the wrong move, and eliminates $25 billion in savings. I will be urging members of the House and Senate who draft the final bill to make sure this essential provision is included.”
Despite the the need for improvement, Feingold decided to back the compromised plan at least in part to move the process — which might yet improve the measure — forward.
“(While) the loss of the public option is a bitter pill to swallow, on balance, the bill still delivers meaningful reform, and the cost of inaction is simply too high,” explained the senator. “This bill significantly expands coverage and helps protect Wisconsinites from high costs and insurance company abuses, such as denying or restricting coverage based on pre-existing conditions. The bill also improves a flawed Medicare formula that denies Wisconsin fair reimbursement rates, encourages the kind of low-cost, high-value care practiced in our state, increases access to home and community-based long-term care, and reduces federal budget deficits by $132 billion over the next decade.”