After a marathon vote-a-thon that started just after 5 p.m. Wednesday and ran until 2:45 a.m., and then and then picked up again at 9:45 a.m. Thursday, Senate Democrats had blocked more than 30 amendments proposed by Republicans to the sweeping health-care legislation. But Republicans did find about 16 lines of technical changes that need to be stripped from the bill to meet the rules of the reconciliation process.
The president signed the historic health-care bill on Tuesday. What the Senate had to settle this week were a package of changes approved by Congress as part of a budget reconciliation bill These changes -- the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act -- have to be approved by both houses before the President can sign it. The Senate voted 56 to 43 in favor of the bill.The reconciliation process can only be used on bills related to the budget. The Democrats chose to use this method, which has been used many times on controversial measures in the Senate, because they no longer have the 60 votes to stop a filibuster. Only 51 votes are needed to pass a reconciliation bill. The last two bills where the reconciliation was used were George Bush's two major pieces of tax-cut legislation.
Ironically, the lines that must be stripped from the reconciliation bill have nothing to do with health care. They relate to changes in the Pell grants, education grants for low-income students. "The parliamentarian struck two minor provisions tonight from the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act," Kate Cyrul, an aid to Sen. Tom Harkin, told the New York Times. "These changes do not impact the reforms to the student loan programs and the important investments in education. We are confident the House will quickly pass the bill with these minor changes."
Aides told the Wall Street Journal that one change is purely "technical" language with no substantive importance. The other was intended to reduce uncertainty in the amount of money available for low-income students by providing a set amount each year that students could depend upon rather than deal with changes in federal spending. Knocking out these lines will not make a major change in the Pell grant program. Ultimately, the government will save about $60 billion in the next 10 years when this bill becomes law.
I watched about five hours of the vote-a-thon Wednesday and it was relatively boring. For each amendment, one Republican was given two minutes to debate his amendment and a Democrat had two minutes to respond. Then a roll call vote was taken, which took about 15 minutes. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., handled most of the responses for the Democrats. Republicans took turns proposing amendments.
The one vote that came the closest to passing was an amendment to stop the 3.8% Medicare tax on investment income. That amendment was blocked by a vote of 52 to 46.
Democrats tried everything they could to speed the process, while Republicans stalled the final vote as long as possible. Republicans not only slowed proceedings on the floor of the Senate, but they also blocked committee hearings. Both the Armed Services Committee's hearing on the Defense Department budget and the Homeland Security Committee's hearing on Afghan police training needed to be canceled because of Republican shenanigans. Democrats in trying to move on to another topic yielded 7 hours and 25 minutes of their debate time so they could get to the vote-a-thon faster.
The House is expected to pass the measure Friday before landing on the president's desk for signature. The reconciliation bill nixes some of the backroom deals that were made to appease wavering Senators. You can find out more about how the health care reform law will affect you by reading my story from earlier this week.
Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Social Security and Medicare and The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Medicare Part D.
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