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Health care reform bill headed for Senate debate

Associated Press | 11/25/2009, 4:47 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, without a vote to spare, pushed forward a bill to overhaul the U.S. health care system, but a divisive debate still lies ahead and there is no assurance the measure — as written — will win approval in the upper chamber of the Congress.

In a rare weekend session, the Senate voted 60-39 to move the health care reform legislation to the floor for a full debate, expected to begin after lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving holiday recess. The 60 votes — a three-fifths majority — were the minimum needed under Senate rules to overcome Republican legislative maneuvers to prevent the bill from even being debated by the full Senate.

All 58 Senate Democrats and two independents voted to advance the bill. Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio was the only senator not to vote.

The legislation would extend coverage to roughly 31 million Americans without health insurance, crack down on insurance company practices that deny or dilute benefits and curtail the growth of spending on medical care nationally.

The United States, with a population exceeding 300 million, is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan. The government provides coverage for the poor and elderly, but most Americans rely on private insurance, usually received through their employers.

The House of Representatives approved its version of the bill earlier this month on a near party line vote of 220-215. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has said he wants the Senate to pass the measure by year’s end. From there, the Senate and House bills would go to what is known as a conference committee where selected members of each chamber would meld the two versions of the overhaul legislation. Each house would then need to approve the final bill before it could be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The president has made revamping health care the key plank in his domestic policy agenda, and Republicans have been fighting to block passage. They believe a defeat on the issue could cripple the administration early in Obama’s first term.

Saturday’s vote was hailed as a victory for Obama, but the legislation’s final passage is far from certain. And the heated debate continued on Sunday morning television news programs.

“I don’t want to fix the problems in our health care system in a way that creates more of an economic crisis,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said.

Lieberman and three Democratic moderates — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas — agreed to advance debate on the bill despite having reservations about the legislation. Each has said they might not support subsequent votes on the bill unless changes are made.

Of particular contentiousness to these moderates is a provision in Reid’s legislation for a “public option” that sets up a government-run program to sell insurance in competition with private companies, with individual states allowed to opt out of it. Critics say the public option would open the way for an eventual government takeover of the health care system.