Senate passes last hurdle and prepares for final healthcare action before Christmas

Using the muscle that comes from 60 solid votes, Senate Democrats today jumped over the last procedural hurdles and successfully cut off debate on the healthcare overhaul bill.

Today’s 60-39 cloture vote was the last of three major procedural votes needed by Democrats, whose caucus includes two independents. The final vote on the legislation is now scheduled for 7 a.m. Thursday, the second time it was pushed up to accommodate senators wanting to go home for the holidays.

During this morning’s debate, senators argued about the political actions taken to win support from the 60 members of the Democratic caucus and whether the final product was deficit-neutral given GOP questions about how the Medicare cuts are being counted.

Before the first vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada urged his colleagues to move beyond the political problems and infighting of the last month.

“The healthcare votes we have held this week have been procedural in nature. Each has been a party-line vote. Much of this debate has been focused on politics, but healthcare reform is not about procedure or partisanship or politics. It’s about people,” Reid said.

Reid then quoted from letters sent to senators calling for changes in the healthcare system to make it more accessible and to protect consumers from the rising costs of healthcare.

“This all about the number of people this bill will help,” he said.

Earlier, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) again argued against the bill.

“Tomorrow the Senate will vote on a bill that makes a bad situation worse,” he said during the televised debate from the floor of the Senate. “This bill slid rapidly down the slippery slope to more and more government control of healthcare.”

Before the final vote today, Democrats voted down five GOP procedural points, including one that questioned the constitutionality of requiring most Americans to buy health insurance and one that challenged the creation of insurance exchanges.

Both go to the heart of the healthcare reform effort. The exchanges are designed to empower consumers seeking insurance coverage. The mandate on buying insurance is how coverage is expanded to more than 30 million additional Americans. The bill funds that mandate with cuts to Medicare and new taxes and fees.