Thursday, December 24, 2009

Senate Passes Historic Health Bill

Updated: 12/24/09 8:34 AM EST

After months of blown deadlines and political near-death experiences, a sweeping health care reform bill cleared the Senate Thursday on a party-line vote, putting President Barack Obama within reach of a domestic policy achievement that has eluded Democrats for decades.

With Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the session, Democrats gathered in the chamber before sunrise on the day before Christmas to cast a vote long in coming but in the end, hardly a surprise, a 60-39 tally that was the fourth time in as many days that Democrats proved they could muster the winning margin.

But this was the one that counted, the bookend to a House vote last month that puts Congress on record saying that Americans have the right to affordable health insurance, with plans that will cover 30 million Americans currently without it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said before the vote that Americans could wait no longer. “We certainly don’t have. . .the luxury of waiting. We may not completely cure this crisis today or tomorrow, but we must strive toward that progress.”

When Sen. Robert Byrd’s name was called, the ailing West Virginian said, “Mr. President, this is for my friend, Ted Kennedy – aye," a reference to the late Massachusetts senator who long fought for universal health care.

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed: “This fight isn’t over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law. That’s the clear will of the American people — and we’re going to continue to fight on their behalf.”

The vote sets the stage for difficult House-Senate negotiations during which Democrats will be forced to settle differences that have lingered for months, and there is no guarantee a bill will pass in the end.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of the last Democratic holdouts, once again made clear that his vote isn’t assured when the bill returns to the Senate. In the hallway outside the vote, he told his fellow moderate, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), “Our work is not over.”

"Splitting the difference here could well break the 60 vote consensus," Lieberman said to reporters.

With momentum at their back, Democrats believe they can craft a compromise that, in broad strokes, would expand coverage through subsidies to help Americans buy insurance and allowing more people into the Medicaid program. The Senate plan includes a new national health insurance program overseen by the government but offered through private insurers.

It would prevent insurance companies from dropping patients who get sick and create a new legal requirement that all Americans must own health insurance – a provision already under growing attack from conservatives.


As always, the "devil will be in the details." It is difficult to conceive of how the House and Senate bills can be reconciled given that they are so different. Recall, the House bill contains a moderately aggressive "Public Option" while the Senate bill does not contain any Public Option at all.

Moreover the Senate bill has minimal provisions for cost containment. The most remarkable fact is that the Senate bill will force Americans to buy private health care coverage for the first time as a matter of law without providing any tough sanctions to prevent health insurance companies from excessively raising rates. After the Public Option was defeated in the Senate, health insurance company stocks soared in value indicating that the Senate bill is a financial bonanza for the private health insurance industry--a moral travesty that.

--Dr. J. P. Hubert