WASHINGTON — Democrats muscled legislation through the Senate on Thursday reshaping parts of the new health care overhaul law, sending it back to the House for what is expected to be final congressional approval.
With Vice President Joe Biden presiding in case his vote was needed to break a tie, the Senate approved the measure by 56-43. Underscoring the partisan divide that has characterized the long-running health care fight, all voting Republicans – including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine – opposed the measure. as did three Democrats: Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.
In a dramatic nod to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who had spent a career championing health care for all Americans, the Senate observed a moment of silence in his honor before voting.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked senators to cast their votes from their desks, a seldom-used procedure the chamber employs only for the most significant measures. Democrats did so in a bow to the initiative’s importance to their party, but some Republicans did not.
Eager to get the contentious battle behind them, Democrats originally hoped the Senate’s vote would ship the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature. But working with the chamber’s parliamentarian, Republicans found two minor provisions in the bill — dealing with Pell grants for low-income students — that violated congressional budget rules and were deleted from the legislation.
As a result, the bill had to be returned to the House because both chambers must approve identical legislation before it can be sent to the White House. Top House Democrats said they expected that to happen by evening.
Obama’s drive to reshape the country’s health care system — capped Tuesday when he signed wide-ranging changes into law — has been a tortuous, bitterly fought journey from the start.
As if to mimic that, senators approved the bill Thursday after voting on 40 consecutive Republican amendments, with Democrats defeating every one and senators setting a record for what some called a Senate “vote-a-rama.”
They voted until after 2 a.m. Thursday, then resumed the roll calls later in the morning, tallying a total of 13 hours of relentless voting.
“This has been a legislative fight that will be in the record books,” Reid said before the final Senate vote.