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Two down, one to go. President Barack Obama's health care overhaul easily cleared its second 60-vote test in the Senate early Tuesday morning.
Senate Democrats remained united in their goal of passing historic legislation by Christmas, and Republicans were steadfast in opposition. The motion to shut off debate on a package put together by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid passed 60-39.
The final 60-vote hurdle, which would end debate on the bill itself, is expected Wednesday afternoon, starting a 30-hour countdown to a night-before-Christmas vote on the bill, which needs only a simple majority to pass.
The Senate has been voting at odd hours since Monday around 1 a.m. because Republicans have insisted on using all the time allowed them under Senate rules to delay the bill. Not to be thwarted, Reid, D-Nev., has refused to postpone action until after the holidays. Hence the unusual schedule. On Tuesday, they started voting at sunrise.
With long hours getting in the way of family obligations - and the outcome now seemingly preordained - frustration has been mounting in the Senate. As the schedule stands, a vote on final passage would not come until late Christmas Eve day.
Reid appealed to senators Tuesday to set aside acrimony and personal rancor and reach for some holiday spirit. "I would hope everybody will keep in mind that this is a time when we reflect on peace and good things," he said. If Republicans agree, the schedule could be shortened and senators would go home earlier.
The 10-year, nearly $1 trillion plan would extend coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans, with a new requirement for almost everyone to purchase insurance. Subsidies would be provided to help lower-income people do so, and businesses would be encouraged to cover their employees through a combination of tax breaks and penalties.
Unpopular insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with existing health conditions would be banned. Uninsured or self-employed Americans would have a new way to buy health insurance, via marketplaces called exchanges where private insurers would sell health plans required to meet certain minimum standards.
The legislation will make a "tremendous difference for families, for seniors, for businesses and for the country as a whole," Obama said Monday.
The American Medical Association announced its endorsement after Reid made some last-minute changes to please the doctors. A 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgery procedures was replaced with a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services; a proposed fee on physicians to enroll in Medicare was dropped; and payment cuts to specialty and other physicians to pay for bonuses to primary care doctors in underserved areas were also eliminated, said the AMA's president-elect, Dr. Cecil B. Wilson.
"America has the best health care in the world - if you can get it," Wilson said at a press conference with Reid and other leaders. "For far too many people access to care is out of reach because they lack insurance. This is not acceptable to physicians."
Democrats prevailed 60-40 over Republican opposition on the first test early Monday, voting to block a threatened GOP filibuster of a last-minute package of Democratic amendments.
The final 60-vote hurdle awaits Wednesday, and final passage of the legislation - requiring a simple majority - is set for late Thursday, Christmas Eve, if Republicans take all the available time. As of Monday they said they would.
"I am willing to stay here. The flight that I have is Christmas morning, and I don't plan on changing that reservation," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters after a meeting of GOP senators. "We potentially are getting ready to pass a bill that there's no question in my mind is going to lead to huge deficits down the road."
This program aired on December 22, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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