Senate Democrats push crucial health vote

Centrists seem to be falling in with party line

Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have been question marks in recent days. Landrieu has been the clearest about what she wanted in return for her vote. Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have been question marks in recent days. Landrieu has been the clearest about what she wanted in return for her vote.
By Erica Werner and David Espo
Associated Press / November 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON - With no margin for rebellion, Senate Democrats pushed toward a crucial test vote tonight on their sweeping health care bill, with wavering moderates appearing to be falling in line.

One of three uncommitted centrists, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, announced yesterday he would vote with his party’s leaders on the must-pass procedural measure allowing debate to go forward.

Nelson said that it didn’t mean he’d back the final bill, but that Nebraskans wanted changes to the health care system. “The Senate owes them a full and open debate,’’ he said in a statement.

The bill’s supporters need 60 votes to begin debate, meaning that all 58 Senate Democrats and the two independents that generally vote with them will need to hold together. Republicans are united in opposition.

“We are not assuming a thing. We are working hard to bring all Democrats together for the 60 votes necessary to proceed to this historic debate,’’ said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Senate Democrat.

Nelson had been one of just three question marks in recent days, along with fellow moderate Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Of the three, Landrieu has been the clearest about what she wanted in return for her vote to allow debate to start. Over recent weeks, Landrieu has outlined the areas she wanted addressed for the benefit of her constituents - issues that could be dealt with only after health legislation made it to the Senate floor.

After meeting with Reid almost a month ago, she mentioned the “unique challenges Louisiana is facing in terms of Medicaid.’’ In a Senate speech and statement, she also noted that Louisiana has the highest breast cancer death rate in the country and the lowest female life expectancy of any state. And she raised the issue of exploding health care costs for small businesses.

Landrieu can point to provisions in the legislation that are designed to attack all three problems. They include Section 2006 - “Special adjustment to FMAP Determination for Certain States recovering from a Major Disaster’’ is the title - a few dozen lines of indecipherable legalese that mentions neither Landrieu nor Louisiana.

But the section’s purpose is indisputable: According to the Congressional Budget Office, it will send an additional $100 million to Louisiana to help it cover costs for Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.

Lincoln has been the most close-mouthed about her intentions. As a committee chairwoman, she is the most powerful of the group. As the only one of the three seeking reelection next year, she is also the most politically vulnerable.

“She is reviewing the bill before determining how she will vote Saturday,’’ Leah Vest DiPietro, a spokeswoman for Lincoln, said yesterday.

In public, she has asked that the bill be available for 72 hours before the vote occurs. In private, her demands have been more substantive, according to officials who did not describe them.

Lincoln has also suggested her vote will be influenced by President Clinton, who was Arkansas governor for 12 years before winning the White House. Clinton recently met privately with Senate Democrats, telling them that passing an imperfect bill was better than nothing. “We don’t ever go to Washington with the idea that we’re going to create a work of art,’’ Lincoln said afterward. “It’s got to be a work in progress.’’

Republicans sought yesterday to increase the discomfort for the moderate Democrats.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona noted at a news conference that national polls show at best a split on the health care bill. “We hope our more moderate colleagues on the Democratic side would respect the wishes of their constituents, rather than do the bidding of Harry Reid,’’ Kyl said.

Ahead of tonight’s vote, Republicans and Democrats spent yesterday trading barbs on the Senate floor over the bill. Republicans displayed the Senate bill and the 1,990-page House bill - stacked on top of each other to form a tall pile - to criticize the legislation as an unwarranted government intrusion.

Democrats defended their plan and blasted Republicans for not producing a bill of their own.

The House passed its own health overhaul bill two weeks ago on a 220-to-215 vote. After tonight’s vote, senators will leave Washington for a weeklong Thanksgiving recess, and return for a lengthy and unpredictable debate on the measure, with dozens of amendments expected from both sides.

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