Obama health bill passes crucial vote

US Senate Democrats won a crucial vote on President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan, putting them on track for passage before Christmas of the historic legislation to overhaul the medical system and cover 30 million uninsured Americans.

All 58 Democrats and the Senate’s two independents held together early yesterday against unanimous Republican opposition, providing the exact 60-40 margin needed to shut down a threatened filibuster.

The vote’s timing, at 1am early yesterday morning, was needed in order to get to a final vote by Christmas Eve, presuming opponents stretch out the debate.

Despite the late hour and a partisan atmosphere, spirits were high with supporters of the measures.

“Today we are closer than we’ve ever been to making Senator Ted Kennedy’s dream of universal health insurance coverage a reality,” Sen Tom Harkin of Iowa, said ahead of the vote. “Vote your hopes, not your fears. Seize the moment.”

Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, watched from the visitors’ gallery with administration officials who have worked intensely on the issue.

The outcome was preordained after Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada wrangled his fractious caucus into line over the course of the past several months, culminating in last-minute deals and concessions to win over the final holdouts, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and conservative Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Obama’s oft-stated goal of a bipartisan health bill was not met, despite his extensive courtship of moderate Sen Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only Republican to support the bill in committee. Obama called Snowe to the White House for lengthy in-person meetings both before he left for climate talks in Copenhagen and after his return on Saturday.

In the end Snowe said she was “extremely disappointed” in what she called a rushed process that left scant time for her to review, much less amend, the bill.

Even so, the vote represented a major victory for Obama, who is now clearly in reach of passing legislation extending health coverage to nearly all Americans, a goal that has eluded a succession of past presidents.

The legislation would make health insurance mandatory for the first time for nearly everyone, provide subsidies to help lower-income people buy it, and induce employers to provide it, with tax breaks for small businesses and penalties for larger ones.

Two more procedural votes await the Senate, each requiring 60 votes, the first of these set for today. Final passage of the bill requires a simple majority, and that vote could come as late as 7pm on Christmas Eve.

Although Democrats are expected to prevail, the final outcome remains unpredictable, because the Senate measure must be harmonised with the bill passed by the House in November before final legislation can be sent to Obama’s desk.

At their core the bills are similar. Each costs around $1 trillion over 10 years and is paid for by a combination of tax and fee increases and cuts in projected Medicare spending.

Each sets up new insurance marketplaces where uninsured or self-employed people and small businesses can compare prices and plans designed to meet basic requirements.

Unpopular insurance practices such as denying people coverage based on pre-existing conditions would be banned.


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