It was the middle of the night in Washington, but all 100 senators were gathered in the Capitol for a key procedural vote on health care reform legislation. Democrats needed every single one of the 58 Democrats in the Senate, plus the two independents who normally vote with them, to vote for cloture, which limits debate and Republican delaying tactics, and they got it. All 40 Republicans voted against cloture.
"On this vote, the yeas are 60 and the nays are 40. Three fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn, having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to."
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada had been working day and night for weeks to get the 60 votes he needed, amid tireless efforts by Republicans to delay and obstruct passage of a bill they strongly oppose.
Moments before the vote, Reid read from letters sent to him by people in his home state of Nevada who are sick and unable to get necessary medical care. Senator Reid cited a Harvard University study that says on average, one American dies every ten minutes because of a lack of health insurance.
"This country, the greatest and richest the world has ever seen, is the only advanced nation on earth where dying for a lack of health insurance is even possible," Reid said. "
The bill would extend health insurance coverage to 30 million Americans who now lack it, and bar insurance companies from practices such as denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Most Americans would be required to purchase health insurance for the first time, with subsidies provided to those who cannot afford it.
Senate Minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky summed up Republican opposition, saying the bill is too expensive and does not fix the problems with the current health care system.
"Tonight marks the culmination of a long national debate," McConnell said. "Passions have run high and that is appropriate. Because the bill we are voting on tonight will impact the life of every American. It will shape the future of our country. It will determine whether our children can afford the future they inherit."
Senator McConnell conceded that Democrats have the votes they need, but he said they will face political consequences if the bill passes.
As wrangling over the bill has continued for months, public support for the initiative, President Obama's top domestic priority, has declined. But passage would still be viewed as a major political victory for the president.
Conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson announced his support for the bill Saturday after long negotiations with Senator Reid, giving Democrats the 60 votes they needed. They will need those 60 votes again for a series of procedural votes this week, leading up to a vote on the actual health care bill now likely to take place Thursday evening, Christmas Eve.
If the bill passes in the Senate, that version will have to be merged with a more liberal version passed by the House of Representatives which includes a government-run alternative, not included in the Senate version. So there is likely to be more wrangling and possibly more late night votes on Capitol Hill in January.