US healthcare bill passes Senate vote

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The US Senate, by a vote of 60 to 39, has decided to begin debate on legislation crafted by majority Democrats to reform the country's health care system.

The measure, opposed by Republican senators, was voted on Saturday evening. One Republican Senator, George Voinovich of Ohio, was not present and did not vote.

It was not clear until earlier in the day whether the Democrats would have enough votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor for full debate.

During the day, two moderate Democrats announced they would support the move during a rare Saturday session. That gave the Democrats the 60 votes they needed to move the measure forward. The legislation is intended to extend health care coverage to millions of uninsured people, prevent insurance companies from denying benefits, and limit the growth of spending on medical care.

In the rare session, opposition Republicans criticized the bill, saying it would drive up the cost of insurance and add to the nation's deficit.

While Democrats won the vote to begin debate, passage of the bill is not certain. Some moderate Democrats have signaled strong opposition to components of the bill, including a government-run option to compete with private insurers. However, the Senate version does allow states to opt out of the public option.

Senator Blanche Lincoln, who was one of the Democrats who had wavered on whether to support the bill, decided to vote for it. "Although I don't agree with everything in this bill, I have concluded that I believe that it is more important that we begin this debate to improve our nation's healthcare system for all Americans, [...]" she said. Two other Democratic senators said they were uncertain about the bill, and did not make up their minds until hours before the vote, adding to the uncertainty.

The Congressional Budget Office said the Senate bill, unveiled on Wednesday, would cost $849 billion over the next decade. Analysts say the plan also would reduce U.S. deficits by nearly $130 billion in the same period. If the bill passes, it would have to be merged with one passed earlier this month by the House of Representatives. The House narrowly approved its bill on a sharply divided vote of 220 to 215.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to deliver legislation to him for signing by the end of the year.