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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Senate Passes Reconciliation Package

WASHINGTON (CN) - The reconciliation package passed 56-43 Thursday after Democrats deflected a wave of fruitless Republican attempts to add amendments, some of which would have undone essential provisions of the already enacted health bill. But Republican discovery of two provisions that must be removed forces the House to re-approve the bill. "Every amendment is to kill health care reform," Montana Democrat Max Baucus said.

Three Democrats voted against the reconciliation package: Arkansas Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.

Democrats had been looking to reject all changes so that the reconciliation package wouldn't have to go back to the House. The package is a set of modifications to the enacted health bill and the changes were passed by the House last weekend.

One of the flaws violating reconciliation rules involves a provision that would prevent cuts to the maximum Pell grant scholarship. Once the faults were identified at 2:45 a.m., Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada ended the session.

The discovery of procedural flaws concluded a day of bitter debate on the Senate floor over the proposed Republican amendments.

Saying that "men are from Mars and women from Venus," Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski added, "I think that party is from Mars and we're from the planet Earth."

Mikulski questioned how Republicans could oppose a bill that stabilizes Medicare for nearly 10 extra years, that extends insurance from 80 to 95 percent of the population, that ends abusive practices of insurance companies, and that is paid for.

Proposed Republican amendments would allow states to opt out of the health reform, would send the bill back to committee, would stop Medicare prescription payments from going to convicted rapists or child molesters, and would bar money from being removed from Medicare among other things.

Republicans continued to voice objections over the significant cuts to Medicare, pointed to special deals for certain states that were carved out in the bill, and noted that an expensive increase in doctors' fees was postponed to be calculated into a different bill, maintaining that the Democrats have been deceitful.

"Why have an opposition party?" New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg asked, appearing frustrated with the poor chances that any amendment will pass. "Maybe we should just go to a Cuban system."

"It's just so arrogant," Gregg added, suggesting that Democrats had been treating Republicans as pests instead of anything substantial.

And Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain chimed in. "It's historic in the special deals that have been cut," he said, likely referring in part to a plan that would allow Florida seniors to keep their Medicare Advantage plans while others lose theirs. "Everybody's got a deal but the American citizen."

"This fight is not over," McCain warned. "We will take it to the towns and cities in America," he said, predicting that the November elections will be "seismic."

President Obama signed the Senate health bill into law on Tuesday.

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed said Republicans "are in favor of a system where the whim of insurance companies rules."

And Virginia Democrat Jim Webb suggested that Republicans drop the general debate on health care and focus on the more minor changes at hand. "The bill is now law," he said. "The question is how to make this better law."

The floor debates come as the Senate considers a package of changes to the health bill that was signed into law on Tuesday. The changes are an effort to reconcile the differences between the Senate and House health bills passed months ago.

But because the Senate can only hold a reconciliation vote on a bill that is already law, House members took a leap of faith and passed the Senate version with the understanding that changes would be adopted to make the passed Senate bill more like the House bill.

If the House had not passed the Senate bill, both the Senate and the House would have had to pass the bill negotiated from their two separate versions. The chances of Senate passage appeared slim after the Democrats lost their super majority with the replacement of Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy with Republican Scott Brown.

Now that the bill is passed, the process known as reconciliation -- where only a simple majority vote is needed for passage -- will be used in the Senate during the vote to pass the changes.

Reconciliation has traditionally been reserved for budget measures and Republicans are clamoring that it can't be used for the health measures.

The health bill drastically cuts Medicare Advantage, a government-subsidized private plan where patients pay more for extra care. Nearly a quarter of seniors are beneficiaries of the Medicare Advantage plans.

Republicans are decrying cuts to the private policies, but Democrats maintain that the insurance middlemen are taking too much off the top, leading to 20 percent waste. Baucus said that cutting the program extends Medicare's solvency by 18 months.

Before the bill's passage, Medicare was expected to go broke in 2017. This has now been delayed by nearly a decade.

A final vote on the reconciliation package is expected Thursday.

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