A Major Step for the Landmark Health Reform Bill
The Senate bill must now be merged with the House version in conference committee -- setting up a rancorous debate over the legislation's particulars. Euphoric Senate Democratic leaders vowed that the bill is just the first step toward achieving liberals' century-long vision of universal health care coverage. Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, vowed to return to Congress in January and expand the bill.
In particular, Harkin said he would push for a so-called "public option" -- a measure that Democrats claim would introduce more fairness into the health care system by providing competition. Republicans say the public option would lead the way toward nationalized -- or socialized, in their words -- medicine.
The new program will cost a mind-boggling $1 trillion over 10 years, to be paid for through a combination of fees, tax hikes and Medicare cuts. Obama and Senate Democrats claim the measure will be "budget neutral," largely because most of the new benefits will be delayed for four years, while new taxes and Medicare cuts will kick in immediately.
The bill's passage caps months of intense debate and political gamesmanship, leading up to a frenzied week of procedural votes and vituperative bickering. Exhausted Democrats hailed the bill, passed shortly after 7 a.m. Christmas Eve.
"This morning isn't the end of the process, it's merely the beginning. We'll continue to build on this success to improve our health system even more," said Reid. "But that process cannot begin unless we start today. There may not be a next time."
The victory caps Sen. Reid's legislative career and instantly catapults him -- for good or ill -- into the vaunted history books of the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world: the U.S. Senate. Reid said the vote "brings us one step closer to making Ted Kennedy's dream a reality."
Among its landmark provisions, the Senate bill would bar the health care industry -- which represents 20% of annual U.S. spending -- from denying benefits or charging people with pre-existing conditions extra.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says the bill would reduce federal deficits by $130 billion over the next 10 years, but Senate Republicans assail that figure, accusing Democrats of shell-game accounting.
Among the requirements that infuriated both hardcore liberal and conservatives is a requirement that virtually all Americans purchase health insurance -- a mandate that partisans on both sides suggest may be unconstitutional. Federal subsidies will help low-income citizens afford health insurance for the first time, while employers will be granted tax breaks and face penalties in an effort to induce them to cover their employees.
Congressional Republicans -- vanquished after an epic, year-long fight -- unloaded with both barrels on the bill, accusing Democrats of using "Chicago-style" backroom deals to pass an unfunded, unconstitutional bill that will compound the nation's already massive federal debt.
"Not even Ebenezer Scrooge himself could devise a scheme as cruel and greedy as Democrats' government takeover of health care," House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Ohio Republican, said in a statement. "Senator Reid's health care bill increases premiums for families and small businesses, raises taxes during a recession, cuts seniors' Medicare benefits, adds to our skyrocketing debt, and puts bureaucrats in charge of decisions that should be made by patients and doctors.
In a major sticking point for most Republicans and some moderate Democrats, the Senate bill would create a dual funding scheme that would allow women to use private funds -- supposedly sequestered from public funds -- to pay for abortions. The bill "authorizes taxpayer-funded abortions, violating long-standing federal policy," Boehner said, referring to the Hyde amendment, which prohibits taxpayers from funding abortions.
"It's no coincidence that the more the American people learn about this monstrosity, the more they oppose it," Boehner said.
Now that the bill has passed, both sides can return home and tend to their constituencies -- some 300 million Americans are still in the grip of the worst recession in decades. When both sides reassemble after the holiday recess, Americans can look forward to a spirited fight over the bill's specifics in the conference committee come January.