This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to waive the Senate's budget rules with respect to an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) extending a number of expiring programs. The measure Grassley 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.”
Grassley’s amendment would have extended for one month unemployment insurance for laid-off workers who have exhausted their benefits. It would also have extended for one month a program subsidizing COBRA health care coverage for those who were recently laid off. The COBRA health insurance program allows laid-off workers to keep their health insurance coverage after losing their jobs. Grassley’s amendment would have paid for these extensions by using funding contained in the economic stimulus legislation that President Obama signed into law in February 2009 in response to the economic crisis.
Grassley urged support for his amendment: “It includes a 30-day extension for unemployment insurance, COBRA coverage…We can do this without adding to the deficit…”
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) urged opposition to the amendment: “…This amendment is a killer amendment designed to send the reconciliation bill back to the House and let it go all over again. It is paid for by repealing some stimulus dollars.” Baucus also argued the amendment violated the Senate’s budget rules. Under these rules, amendments cannot be adopted to legislation brought up under the budget reconciliation process if those amendments are not strictly relevant to budgetary matters. Grassley then made a motion to waive those budget rules. Motions to waive the budget rules require 60 votes for passage.
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 rejected the motion to waive its budget rules with respect to the Grassley amendment by a vote of 40-56. All 39 Republicans present and 1 Democrat voted “yea.” 56 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate effectively rejected an amendment Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the entire companion health care measure and would have extended a number of expiring programs, including unemployment insurance for laid-off workers who have exhausted their benefits. A bill extending unemployment insurance for laid-off workers could, however, be brought up at a later date.