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After 2d test, Democrats sure on health bill

Final Senate vote scheduled for 8 a.m. tomorrow

“The finish line is in sight,’’ said Senator Max Baucus (right), shown yesterday with Senators Chris Dodd and Harry Reid. “The finish line is in sight,’’ said Senator Max Baucus (right), shown yesterday with Senators Chris Dodd and Harry Reid. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)
By Erica Werner
Associated Press / December 23, 2009

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WASHINGTON - From the White House to Capitol Hill yesterday, Democrats confidently predicted Senate passage of President Obama’s health care overhaul after the bill cleared its second 60-vote test and the time was set for a final tally.

Coming to the Senate floor in the middle of the afternoon, majority leader Harry Reid announced an agreement to vote on final passage at 8 a.m. tomorrow, Christmas Eve. It would mark the 25th consecutive day of Senate debate on health care.

“The finish line is in sight,’’ said Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, at a press conference with other Senate leaders and cheering supporters. “We’re not the first to attempt such reforms but we will be the first to succeed.’’

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “Health care reform is not a matter of if. Health care reform is now a matter of when.’’

Obama said the Senate legislation accomplishes 95 percent of what he wanted on health care. “Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill,’’ the president said.

Senate Democrats remained united at sunrise yesterday behind their compromise bill, over steadfast Republican opposition. A motion to end debate and move to a vote on a package of changes by Reid passed 60 to 39.

The final 60-vote hurdle, limiting debate on the bill, is expected to be cleared this afternoon. That would start a 30-hour countdown to a night-before-Christmas vote on the legislation, which needs a 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 under Senate rules to delay the bill. Not to be thwarted, Reid has refused to postpone action until after the holidays.

With long hours getting in the way of family obligations - and the outcome now seemingly set - senators are getting frustrated. Even Obama has put his planned vacation to Hawaii on hold, saying he wants to be in Washington in case there are last-minute problems in the Senate.

Reid appealed to his colleagues yesterday to set aside acrimony 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.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he, too, wanted to close the debate. After conferring with McConnell, Reid announced the timing of the final vote.

Even so, partisan fires were still burning.

GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina denounced concessions won by conservative Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, whose support gave Democrats the 60th and final vote they need.

Among other things, Nelson got assurance that the federal government will pay to expand Medicaid services in Nebraska.

“That’s not change you can believe in. That’s sleazy,’’ Graham said on NBC’s “Today’’ show.

Attorney General Henry McMaster of South Carolina, a candidate for governor, said yesterday that he and his counterparts in Michigan and Washington state are investigating whether the special provisions for Nebraska and other states are constitutional.

“Whatever the legal status may be, and we hope to find out soon, these negotiations on their face appear to be a form of vote-buying paid for by taxpayers,’’ McMaster said, adding he hopes citizens will challenge the legislation in court.

Reid has defended the dealmaking, asserting that all senators got something they were looking for in the health bill and if they did not, it speaks poorly of them.

Also yesterday, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, announced that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to his request to investigate whether drug companies are raising prices of brand-name prescription drugs used by Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries ahead of passage of the health care bill.

AARP says prescription drug prices are on the rise, but the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said in a statement that Nelson’s request “was spurred, in large part, on misleading statistics and sensationalized media reports.’’

After final passage, the Senate measure would have to be harmonized with the health care bill passed by the House in November before final legislation would go to Obama.

There are significant differences between the two bills, including stricter abortion language in the House bill, a new government-run insurance plan in the House bill that is missing from the Senate version, and a tax on high-value insurance plans embraced by the Senate but strongly opposed by many House Democrats.