President Obama, who put off his Hawaii Christmas vacation to remain in town for the 60-39 vote, says the legislation goes a long way toward meeting the goals he set in last year’s campaign. “I am very satisfied,” the president told the PBS NewsHour in an interview on the eve of the roll call.
Underscoring the administration’s support for the bill, Vice President Biden exercised his prerogative to chair the Senate for a roll call vote that took place as the sun was rising over the Capitol Dome. It was the first time since 1963 that the Senate met on the day before Christmas and the first time since 1895 that senators cast a roll call vote on this day.
Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives, were on hand for the historic vote that carried emotion for both of them. Ted Kennedy had made health care his life’s work, as he called it, and Dingell’s late father worked on health care issues when he represented Michigan years ago.
“I’ve been working on this for 54 years,” Dingell said. “It is a very important step.”
Outside the chamber, Kennedy accepted congratulations and wiped away tears. She said she got emotional when Sen. Robert Byrd, 92, cast his vote and said, “This is for my friend, Ted Kennedy.”
“That’s when the spigots really opened,” she said, smiling through her tears.
At a press conference after the vote, Democrats celebrated what Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., called “an enormous victory for the American public.” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted that Republican forecasts of a political firestorm would be proven wrong. “I believe that the negativity. .. has peaked,” Schumer said. He said the plan will grow steadily more popular “when people learn what’s actually in the bill.”
The unusual timing reflected the intensity of the controversy surrounding the bill and the difficulty Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid encountered in holding together the Senate’s 58 Democrats and two independents in support of the bill. The 40 Republican senators all opposed it.
Reid deplored the partisan nature of the debate.
“For the first time in American history a political party has chosen to stand on the sidelines rather than participate in great and greatly needed health care reform,” the majority leader said.
Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republicans argued that the bill will make health care more expensive for most Americans, limit Medicare benefits for senior citizens and raise the national debt. McConnell blamed the lack of compromise on Democrats.
“We’re left with party line votes in the middle of the night, a couple of sweetheart deals to get it over the finish line, and a public that’s outraged,” he said.
Democrats say the bill will improve the nation’s health and economy by making insurance available to 31 million Americans who do not have it and by preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. It also allows young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and it addresses the so-called “donut hole” in Medicare that forces seniors who have prescription drug costs of more than $2,700 a year to pay the full amount until the tab reaches $6,154.
The bill would require most individuals to purchase health insurance and offer subsidies for those who cannot afford the coverage. It also makes companies with more than 50 employees subject to penalties if they do not provide health care and their workers require subsidies.
“This is a historic moment,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., one of the legislation’s architects.
The Senate vote now sends the legislation to a conference committee, where Democratic leaders will try to reconcile differences between House and Senate bills on such things as how to pay for health care; how to help low- and middle-income-earners pay for the insurance they will be required to buy; and what restrictions to place on insurance coverage for abortions. The committee cannot formally meet or take action until Jan. 19, when both chambers return to work. But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters today that members of the group will start talking by phone next week.
Each chamber will then vote again on a final bill next year.
Republicans are vowing to wage a public relations campaign to derail the legislation before the next round of votes. “This is a historic mistake,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.