Democrats in the U.S. Senate have united to push health care reform legislation past a key procedural hurdle, paving the way for full-scale debate starting later this month. President Barack Obama has made passing sweeping health care reform his top domestic priority.
It was an unusual Saturday night showdown in the U.S. Senate on whether a health care reform bill pushed by Democrats should proceed to the floor for full debate. Since all 40 Republicans were on record as opposing the bill, the Democrats did not have a single vote to spare, needing every Democrat and Independent who normally votes with Democrats to cast their votes for it, or else have the vote dead before it ever reached the floor.
It was Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut who announced the results of the cloture vote.
"On this vote, the yays are 60, the nays are 39, three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to," said Dodd.
One Republican Senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, did not vote.
During a long day of debate Saturday, Senate Majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, had appealed to senators to advance the bill to the floor, saying it is their job to debate such a crucial issue.
"If senators refuse to debate about a profound crisis affecting every single citizen, the nation must ask 'What do you fear?', 'And whose voice do you speak and whose interest do you vote?" asked Reid.
Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky disagreed, saying the bill will make soaring health care costs go even higher, and place a greater burden on average Americans.
"And every senator who goes on record saying that we need to proceed to this monstrosity of a bill, will in effect be voting for higher taxes, higher premiums and cuts in medicare," he said.
The legislation would require most Americans to purchase health insurance and provide subsidies to those who cannot afford it. The insurance industry would come under new regulation under the bill, which would ban the practice of denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. The House of Representatives passed its own version of a health care bill two weeks ago.
The outcome of the Saturday night drama had actually been sealed earlier in the day, when two Democratic senators who had not pledged their support for the bill announced that they would vote for it to advance to debate. One of them, Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, made clear that doing nothing is not an option.
"I have concluded that I believe it is more important that we begin this debate to improve our nation's health care system for all Americans, rather than just simply drop the issue and walk away," said Lincoln.
The Senate cloture vote paves the way for weeks of heated debate in the Senate on health care after the Thanksgiving holiday. The White House issued a statement welcoming the outcome, saying the U.S. is now one step closer to extending quality health care to those Americans who lack it. President Obama has said he hopes to have a health care bill on his desk before his State of the Union Address in January.