This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to table (kill) an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that would have eliminated a provision in health care reform legislation imposing a fine on businesses with 50 or more employees that do not provide their workers with health insurance. The measure Collins sought to amend was a “companion bill” making a number of changes to health care reform legislation already signed into law by President Obama. The underlying context was that Republicans were trying to attach amendments to the companion bill in order to send it back the House, where it had passed by a narrow margin. CNN reported that Republicans had chosen to offer a slew of amendments in order to “undermine the measure,” while the Associated Press characterized the amendments as “a final drive to thwart President Barack Obama's health care remake.”
The provision Collins sought to eliminate from health care reform legislation imposed a $40,000 fine on businesses with 50 employees that do not offer their workers health insurance -- and an additional $2,000 fine for each additional employee. (For example, a business with 51 employees that failed to provide its workers with health insurance would face a $42,000 fine.)
Collins urged support for her amendment: "The amendment I am offering would waive the onerous fines that are in this bill for small businesses that hire unemployed workers. If you voted for the HIRE Act giving a tax credit, why in the world would you support a policy of imposing penalties on businesses that hire unemployed workers?"
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) made a motion to table (kill) the amendment, arguing it would treat uninsured employees as second-class citizens: "This amendment creates a group of second-class employees. It says you can hire employees so long as they do not have health insurance. I think that is wrong. I do not think we should have a second class of employees, which is the effect of the amendment."
After the House and Senate both passed their respective health care reform bills, the two chambers had intended to reconcile those two bills into a final package. After the House and Senate passed that final package, it would have been sent to President Obama, who would have signed it into law. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), however, won a special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) before the final health care bill could be brought up for a vote. Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 votes in the Senate, leaving Democrats with 59 members – one vote short of the 60 votes they needed to defeat a unanimous Republican filibuster against the final health care bill.
In order to pass comprehensive health care legislation without a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders devised a plan in which the House would pass the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590), thereby enabling the president to sign it into law. The House would then pass a separate companion bill (H.R. 4872) to make changes to the Senate health measure under a process known as "budget reconciliation." Bills considered under budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered under Senate rules. This process allowed the House to make changes to Senate-passed health care legislation without sending the entire health bill back to the Senate, where it could have been filibustered indefinitely. The companion bill incorporated changes to the Senate health care legislation desired by House Democrats. The House passed the companion measure, and sent it to the Senate, where Democratic leaders hoped to defeat all amendments -- thereby avoiding a second vote in the House on a substantively changed bill; a vote that Democrats might have lost given the already tight margin when it was voted on the previous week.
The Senate tabled (killed) the amendment by a vote of 58-41. 58 Democrats voted "yea." All 40 Republicans present and 1 Democrat voted "nay." As a result, the Senate rejected an amendment Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the entire companion health care bill and would have eliminated a provision in health care legislation imposing a fine on businesses with 50 or more employees that do not provide their workers with health insurance.