This vote was on whether to begin debate on a bill that would overhaul the health care system, congressional Democrats’ and President Obama’s marquee issue so far.
Republicans had objected to the procedural motion that allows a bill to be called up on the Senate floor (known as a “motion to proceed”), making opening debate on the bill itself impossible. Much of the Senate’s day to day business depends on the unanimous consent of all members of the Senate in order to proceed. This makes it easy for just one senator to hold up consideration of a bill, by simply withdrawing their consent for simple motions (such as in this case, where several Republicans objected to the “motion to proceed” to debating the bill).
In an effort to force the Senate to begin debating the bill itself, Democrats called a vote on bringing on this “motion to proceed” to a close. If the Senate votes to “invoke cloture” – or bring debate to a close – then lawmakers must either hold a vote on the legislation, amendment or motion in question, or move on to other business. This type of motion is most often called on contentious bills, amendments or motions where the leadership is concerned that consideration could be held up indefinitely by a handful of senators.
The bill as drafted would extend a first-time homebuyer tax credit for military and other federal employees who live overseas, but it is only intended to be the “shell” for the health care overhaul. As debate gets into full swing the Democratic leadership will introduce an amendment to the bill that will replace most of the text with a health care overhaul. This is done as a procedural matter, because congressional rules require that any bill that raises revenue must originate in the House, and the House has already passed the tax credit bill.
This is likely the first of a series of procedural votes that will be necessary in order to begin debating the substance of the Senate Democrats’ health care overhaul bill. Though Democrats were able to secure the 60 votes necessary to move forward with the bill, future success is not assured; a handful of Democrats have said they would vote to open debate on the bill, but that they would not necessarily vote that way on critical policy matters. For instance, Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., were holdouts until the morning of the vote, and have both said they are unhappy with a provision in the bill that would create a government-run public insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.
Republicans have also taken aim at the bill’s price tag. They also argue that it will drive up health insurance costs for the millions of Americans who already have private health insurance.
“Mr. President, our good friends on the other side of the aisle have spent 6 weeks behind closed doors putting together this trillion-dollar experiment in health care that raises premiums, raises taxes, and makes drastic cuts to Medicare. We have now had less than 48 hours to look through this 2,074-page bill,” said Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “The Democratic bill includes nearly $ 1/2 trillion in new taxes that hit virtually every single American, including, most importantly, middle-class families who make less than $250,000 a year. [And] it will raise insurance premiums for the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance in our country.”
The “public option” has been one of the most hotly-debated items of the difficult debate over heath care overhaul thusfar, with Democrats – particularly progressive Democrats – arguing strenuously that a government-run option for health insurance is necessary in order to ensure that millions of Americans who currently can’t afford health insurance are covered. Republicans, in turn, argue that this amounts to an enormous expansion of government-run heath care and that it will decimate the private market for health insurance.
In addition to creating a government-run public insurance plan, the overhaul bill that will eventually be merged in would create consumer-owned insurance co-ooperatives; both are intended to encourage more competition among health insurers. It also would expand Medicaid and create health insurance “exchanges” where people could shop for competing insurance plans. Additionally, it would provide tax credits to help people afford their health insurance coverage.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the bill would cost about $848 billion over the next decade and cover 94 percent of all Americans under age 65.
In a nod to Republicans, the bill would restrict federal funding or abortions by requiring new government-run insurance “exchanges” to give people a choice between a plan that covers abortion and one that doesn’t. Those that do cover abortions (including the public option) would have to keep their funding separate and only use private premiums to pay for covered abortions.
“We gather on the floor today at a time that is historic. It is hard to imagine, to put it in the appropriate context, but this debate over health care reform is remarkably similar to the national debate over the creation of Social Security, or the creation of Medicare. It is that historic. It affects that many Americans and their futures,” said Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “There have been critics of the bill who have come to the floor and argued that this bill should be defeated because it is too long, too many pages. You may ask, why does it take so many words to address this? But wait a minute, this is about health care in America. One out of every six dollars in our economy is spent on health care. It affects every single American citizen, and it will be challenged in court by the health insurance companies that want to stop this health care reform. We have to make sure this is carefully and well written, perhaps erring on the side of adding more language so there is no question as to our intent.”
By a vote of 60-39, the motion to begin debating a health care overhaul was agreed to. Every Democrat present voted for the motion. Every Republican present voted against the motion. The end result is that the Senate voted to open debate on a health care overhaul bill.