Senators gave US President Barack Obama a huge political boost yesterday by passing a sweeping remake of the US health care system that aims to extend coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans.
US Vice President Joe Biden presided over the early morning Christmas Eve ballot in which 58 Democratic senators and two independents gave Obama the 60 votes he needed to pass the bill.
The legislation must now be reconciled with a separate House of Representatives version before going to Obama’s desk to be signed early next year.
Obama pledged in a television interview on Wednesday that he would “absolutely” take a hands-on role in the reconciliation process in coming weeks.
“We hope to have a whole bunch of folks over here in the West Wing, and I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and spending some time before the full Congress even gets into session,” he said on PBS.
The final Senate vote had been planned for late last night, but leaders in the upper chamber agreed to let weary staff and lawmakers go home earlier for the holidays as ice storms headed for the Midwest.
After the vote, attention narrowed on negotiations to forge a compromise between the final Senate bill and the House version, approved on Nov. 7.
They differ on several points, and Obama allies have openly stated preferences for key chunks of the House version, setting up potentially damaging Democratic in-fighting ahead of crucial mid-term elections next year.
The headline battle looms over the provision of a government-backed “public option” to compete with private insurers. This measure was stripped from the Senate bill but remains in the House version.
Another bone of contention is the House bill’s tougher restrictions on federal funds subsidizing abortions: While pro-choice lawmakers denounce the limits, centrist Democrats say they will withhold support without them.
Centrist senators have also warned that they will doom the measure if the upcoming talks lead to drastic changes to the Senate’s hard-won compromise.
Obama, conscious of how much political capital he has invested in this issue, at which generations of his predecessors have tried and failed, insists the Senate bill contains most of what he wants.
“I’d say we did really well,” he told National Public Radio on Wednesday. “I actually think that, considering how difficult the process has been, this is an end product that I am very proud of and is greatly worthy of support.”
Obama acknowledged that the Senate’s decision to do away with the public option has bitterly disappointed some liberals, but insisted the reform would be meaningful.
The US is the world’s richest nation but the only industrialized democracy that does not provide health care coverage to all of its citizens.
As a nation, the US spends more than double what Britain, France and Germany do per person on health care. It lags behind other countries in life expectancy and infant mortality, OECD figures show.
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