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Senate Approves Reconciliation; One House Vote to Go

Updated: 3:45 p.m.

The Senate voted 56-43 to complete its portion of a health care overhaul on Thursday afternoon, approving the measure nearly unchanged except for two minor provisions Republicans were able to strike.

The measure now goes back to the House for what is expected to be a quick approval Thursday evening and then on to the White House for the president’s signature.

Before the final vote, Democrats called for a brief moment of silence to remember the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose life goal was to pass comprehensive health care reform. Kennedy, who suffered from a brain tumor, died in August while the House and Senate were still crafting their bills. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) crossed himself following the brief pause, while Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) embraced an emotional-looking Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) before taking the historic vote.

Following the final vote, Democratic Senators and staff members were all smiles, hugging each other and patting their colleagues on the back. Reid briefly clasped hands with 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), while Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was showered on the floor with well wishes.

Senate Democrats beat back 42 GOP amendments to the reconciliation package in a two-day vote-a-rama before failing to retain two items that were ruled out of order by the Parliamentarian. Sixty votes were needed to overcome the two budget points of order.

Democrats failed to retain a provision setting future formulas for the maximum Pell Grants as well as language making technical and conforming changes to the bill. The Parliamentarian ruled in the wee hours of Thursday morning that both provisions fell outside the scope of what is allowed in a budget reconciliation bill, and Democrats did not call for a vote to save the items.

Democrats were not united on all amendment votes, but their 59-member Conference was large enough to let some Members vote with Republicans while still killing most of the GOP attempts to amend the bill. Republicans, on the other hand, were united in supporting their colleagues’ attempts to amend the bill.

The reconciliation bill was designed to address problems House Democrats had with the larger Senate-passed health care reform bill. House Members demanded Senate action on the bill in exchange for clearing the Senate bill for the president’s signature on Sunday. Senate Democratic leaders pledged to try to pass the bill unchanged; the GOP points of order are forcing a House epilogue to the debate later Thursday.

Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted with all Republicans against the bill, despite having been part of the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority that pushed the Senate bill to passage on Christmas Eve 2009. Lincoln, for example, said she did not believe the reconciliation process was the right way to make changes to the Senate bill that President Obama signed into law Tuesday.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is hospitalized with a bacterial infection, was the only Member who didn’t vote.

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