This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to table (kill) an amendment by Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) – intended to torpedo health care legislation -- that would have repealed a provision in health care legislation signed into law by President Obama imposing a fine on individuals who fail to purchase health insurance. The measure Ensign 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.”
Ensign urged support for his amendment: “Do we want IRS agents showing up at people's houses, not only to audit them because of their taxes but because now they are not paying an individual mandate fine? I do not think America wants expansion of the IRS. We should be focusing on jobs, not new jobs for IRS agents. I encourage my colleagues to vote for this amendment that would eliminate the individual fines on the individual mandates and civil penalties.”
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) made a motion to table (kill) the amendment, saying “…The whole premise, the theory of health care reform is that it is a shared responsibility--employers, employees, American citizens, companies, a shared solution here…. It [the bill] has a good balance of responsibility and accountability. But there must be some consequence of somebody not living up to his or her shared responsibility. It is very sensitive to doing this in the right way. I think it is a good balance. Their amendment goes way too far by eliminating any consequences.”
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 voted to table (kill) the Ensign amendment by a vote of 58-40. All 58 Democrats present voted “yea.” All 40 Republicans present 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 repealed a provision in health care legislation signed into law by President Obama imposing a fine on individuals who fail to purchase health insurance.