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Christmas Eve Departure Seen as Democrats Near Passage of Health Care Bill

By Drew Armstrong and Kathleen Hunter, CQ Staff

December 22, 2009 –Senate leaders struck a deal Tuesday paving the way for passage of the Democrats’ health care overhaul and a short-term increase in the national debt limit shortly thereafter on Dec. 24.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reached an agreement that would set a vote on final passage of the health care bill (HR 3590) for 8 a.m. Thursday.

The same deal calls for consideration and passage of a short-term debt limit increase (HR 4314) immediately after the health care vote. No amendments to the debt limit bill will be in order this time around, but the deal would permit a substitute and eight other amendments to be offered Jan. 20, when the Senate will take up a longer-term increase to the debt ceiling (H J Res 45).

Their goal in sight, Senate Democrats powered through more procedural votes early Tuesday on their march toward passage of the health care overhaul.

By identical votes of 60-39, the Senate adopted Reid’s manager’s amendment and then voted to invoke cloture, or limit debate, on the substitute amendment underlying it.

One more cloture vote—to shut off debate on the bill as amended—stands between the battle-weary Democrats and passage of President Obama’s top domestic policy priority. After that, however, Republicans will not use all of the 30 hours available to them prior to a vote on final passage.

Republicans have fought the health care legislation every inch of the way, keeping the entire Senate, its staff, teenage pages, Capitol police and the congressional press corps on duty as families fretted and a blizzard raged.

Looking Ahead
Democratic leaders were already looking ahead to a conference with the House. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., vowed that Congress would have a bill on President Obama’s desk by the time of his State of the Union address at the end of January.

The House passed its version of the health care legislation (HR 3962) on Nov. 7. Baucus said preconference negotiations will begin as soon as the Senate passes its bill and will continue over the holidays.

“We will get a bill passed in time for the State of the Union address,” Baucus declared.

That end-of-January deadline will be tight. The House does not reconvene for the second session of the 111th Congress until Jan. 12, and the Senate will not return until Jan. 19 once it completes work this year.

That means, in effect, that a deal will have to be struck before Congress is even back in session.

Baucus said he and Reid talked Tuesday about the informal negotiations, mostly by telephone, that will take place over the holidays to meet that deadline. “There will be a lot of work, a lot of meetings, a lot of conversations in the interim,” Baucus said. “We’ll get it done.’

He said the toughest issues to resolve would be the differences between the House and Senate over how to raise the revenue needed to pay for the bill’s broad expansion of health insurance coverage, and how to write language ensuring that no federal funds can be used to pay for abortions.

Reid, Baucus, and Democrats Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Tom Harkin of Iowa are likely to be the lead Senate negotiators, Harkin said Tuesday.

Dodd steered an early version of the bill through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this year, while Harkin now chairs that panel, following the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Harkin said he expected House negotiators to be led by Education and Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif.; Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.; and Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., along with leadership players.

Harkin noted that all but Reid and Rangel were part of same House freshman class — the so-called Watergate babies elected in 1974. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and thus a potential conferee for the GOP, was also elected in 1974.

“It’s an interesting little tidbit . . . that after all these years . . . all of us are playing a key role in this,” Harkin said.

The Path to Passage
But before they can worry about conference, Democrats first must get their bill through the Senate. And they face more delays and more roll call votes before they reach that goal.

First, they will have to dispose of a constitutional point of order that John Ensign, R-Nev., lodged Tuesday against the bill’s requirement that individuals who lack employer-provided health insurance buy it themselves—or pay a penalty.

Ensign said Congress exceeded its constitutional powers in seeking to impose this mandate and also violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on the taking of private property without compensation.

A vote on his challenge will occur Wednesday. The Senate still must adopt the substitute amendment on which debate was limited Tuesday. And it is also scheduled to vote Wednesday on the third and final motion to invoke cloture and limit debate on the bill as amended, before the vote on final passage Thursday morning.

Maintaining Unity
The manager’s amendment that Reid painstakingly constructed late last week to nail down the final Democratic votes and reach the 60 necessary to invoke cloture left many liberals disappointed.

But even though the amendment, unlike the motion to limit debate, could have been adopted by a simple majority, all 60 members of the Democratic caucus supported it.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., who was among the liberals disappointed that the final bill does not include a public plan among the insurance options on a new exchange, said he was not surprised at the Democratic solidarity.

He said he hoped the final version that emerges from a House-Senate conference next month would likewise command 60 votes from Democrats.

“It depends on the way the conferencing is done,” he said.

Harkin, another advocate of a public option, was already looking beyond the current legislation to future bills in future Congresses.

“One of the additions is going to be a public option, in the future,” he said. “This is a starter home, not a finished mansion.”

Kate Davidson contributed to this story.

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