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Senate OKs procedural vote on healthcare debate

Democrats and their allies formally moved their healthcare bill to the Senate floor tonight, rebuffing Republicans and ensuring that lawmakers will get a long and acrimonious debate on the overhaul of the healthcare system.

November 21, 2009|By Noam N. Levey and Michael Muskal | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Democrats and their allies formally moved their healthcare bill to the Senate floor tonight, rebuffing Republicans and ensuring that lawmakers will get a long and acrimonious debate on the overhaul of the healthcare system.

All 58 Democrats and the two independents who usually vote with them backed cloture on a motion to proceed, a needed procedural step to bring the Democratic-backed healthcare bill to the floor and open formal debate. Thirty-nine Republicans opposed the motion.

Tonight's action means that the Senate can begin its debate after the Thanksgiving recess. But it doesn't ensure any outcome: Centrist Democrats said they voted to allow debate, though they insisted they would be proposing amendments as will Republicans.

The vote came after two days of highly partisan debate. The Senate galleries were full, a rare occurrence at any time, but especially on a Saturday night.

"All it would take is one member from the other side of the aisle," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, hoping that Democrats would break their unity. "Just one."

Republicans in the past two days have argued that the measure, expected to cost $848 billion over 10 years, was too expensive and would be funded by a variety of taxes and gimmicks. They criticized the plan as a blueprint for too much government control and too little focus on helping an ailing economy.

Democrats retorted that fixing healthcare financing was crucial to any economic improvement and that changing healthcare insurance funding would help the middle class as well as expanding healthcare access to almost all Americans.

"I again invite my colleagues, my Republican colleagues, to join on the right side of history. I invite them to join us in at the very least in a debate on our future," said Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Those arguments, as well as disputes over funding for abortions and immigrants, will dominate the forthcoming weeks as senators try to pass a bill in time to meet President Obama's deadline of signing a healthcare law this year.

The House has already narrowly passed a different and more generous healthcare bill. Differences on the public funding options, taxes and fees, and other issues will have to be resolved in a conference committee before a final bill can be sent to Obama.

The president has made healthcare reform his top domestic priority for this year and Republicans have been insistent in trying to block any victory as the midterm election looms next year. Most polls show people saying they generally dislike Congress, and even Obama's popularity has begun to slip below 50% by several counts.

Tonight's vote followed two days of debate. But the real decisions came earlier in the day when centrist senators announced they would support bringing the healthcare bill to the floor for fuller debate.

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