At 1 a.m. on December 21, the United States Senate voted 60-40 on a closure motion to cut off a Republican filibuster over amendments to the health-care bill. The debate had been fierce and partisan, and the voting was strictly on party lines, with all 58 Democrats, supported by the two Independents, for the motion and all 40 Republicans, including the previously wavering Olympia Snowe of Maine, against it. The move to end the debate is, in fact, not stated anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, and has been imposed by the Senate on itself. That shows how seriously Democratic Senators take the bill, which is indisputably the most significant legislative measure President Obama has initiated so far. Republican opposition to the proposed law, however, is so fierce that the Senate Democrats will have to get 60 votes on two, if not four, more occasions; the final vote may in fact be taken as late as 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The key point is that the Republican Senators can no longer block the bill.

The bill still faces serious obstacles. Its final form is uncertain, as the version the Senate -- if all goes to plan for the Democrats -- passes could go to a Conference Committee of Senators and Representatives for reconciliation with the version passed 220-215 by the House of Representatives on November 7. Serious problems will almost certainly arise at that stage. First, the House version contains a government cover plan, the so-called public option, for the low paid, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid has had to drop that in order to gain the vote of the Independent Joe Lieberman. Secondly, there will be sharp disagreements over abortion. The Senate text excludes federal funding for insurance plans that offer abortion services, but it does not ban individuals from paying separate insurance cheques to cover abortion; the House version bans all insurers who receive federal funding from offering any such services. A third area of dispute is overall funding for costs estimated to be close to $900 billion over a decade. Furthermore, angry things are being said about the Senate’s removal of the public option by those like Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Senator Russ Feingold. The issues are so complicated that the House and the Senate may not even appoint a Conference Committee but instead hold negotiations involving Democrat leaders and committee chairpersons from both chambers. White House officials are likely to play a substantial part in such negotiations. The health-care bill still has a long way to go but that its proponents have succeeded in taking it even this far is, as economics Nobel laureate Paul Krugman says, an “awesome achievement.”

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