Senators readied for a crucial pre-dawn vote today to pave the way for US health care reform, US President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority, after a key holdout senator said he would back the sweeping legislation.
Democratic Senator Ben Nelson’s resistance had kept fellow Democrats from corralling the 60 votes needed to ensure Senate passage over resistance from Republicans eager to hand Obama a crippling political defeat.
“Change is never easy, but change is what is needed in America today. I will vote for health care reform,” said the lawmaker, who announced on Saturday he had secured the tough new restrictions he sought on public money from paying for abortions.
“With today’s developments,” Obama told reporters at the White House, “it now appears the American people will have the vote they deserve on genuine reform offering security to those who have health insurance and affordable options for those who do not.”
While acknowledging “there is still much work left to be done,” Obama hailed what he called “a major step forward for the American people.”
“After a nearly century-long struggle we are on the cusp of making health care reform a reality,” he said.
At its core, the legislation would create a new insurance exchange where consumers could shop for affordable coverage that complied with new federal guidelines. Most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, with federal subsidies available to help defray the cost for lower and middle-income individuals and families.
But groups from opposites sides of the abortion debate assaulted the compromise. The pro-choice National Organization of Women called it a “cruelly over-compromised legislation,” while the conservative Family Research Council blasted the “phony abortion ‘compromise.’”
The House of Representatives approved similar curbs on abortion when it passed its own version of the legislation, but abortion-rights Democrats have vowed to strip them when the two chambers craft a final bill for Obama to sign into law.
Nelson warned —“less as a threat, and more of a promise” — that he would oppose the final House-Senate compromise if it included “material changes” that stripped out his demands, likely dooming the legislation.
His backing allowed Democrats to breathe a sign of relief ahead of a make-or-break 1am vote today to end debate on Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s newly unveiled compromise health bill.
A tentative Democratic timeline also calls for key procedural votes around 7:00am tomorrow and 1pm on Wednesday, with final passage at 7pm on Thursday.
If the Senate approves the bill, it will still need to reconcile stark differences with a House plan to pass a final measure before Obama’s State of the Union address to the US Congress next month.