The Senate has passed President Barack Obama’s landmark health care overhaul in a climactic Christmas Eve vote, extending
medical insurance to 30 million Americans. The bill requires nearly all Americans to buy insurance and forbids insurance companies
from denying coverage based on patients’ pre-existing conditions.
The 60-39 vote on a cold morning capped months
of arduous negotiations and 24 days of floor debate. It followed a succession of failures by past Congresses to get to this
point. Vice President Joe Biden presided as 58 Democrats and two independents voted "yes." Republicans unanimously
The Senate’s bill must still be merged with legislation passed by the House before Obama
could sign a final bill in the new year.
There are significant differences between the two measures but Democrats
say they’ve come too far now to fail. Both bills would extend health insurance to more than 30 million more Americans.
Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who made health reform his life’s work, watched
the vote from the gallery.
"This morning isn’t the end of the process, it’s merely the beginning. We’ll continue
to build on this success to improve our health system even more," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the
vote. "But that process cannot begin unless we start today … There may not be a next time."
passed its own measure in November. The White House and Congress have now come further toward the goal of a comprehensive
overhaul of the nation’s health care system than any of their predecessors.
The legislation would ban the insurance
industry from denying benefits or charging higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. The Congressional
Budget Office predicts the bill will reduce deficits by $130 billion over the next 10 years, an estimate that assumes lawmakers
carry through on hundreds of billions of dollars in planned cuts to insurance companies and doctors, hospitals and others
who treat Medicare patients.
For the first time, the government would require nearly every American to carry insurance,
and subsidies would be provided to help low-income people to do so. Employers would be induced to cover their employees through
a combination of tax credits and penalties.
Republicans were withering in their criticism of what they deemed a
budget-busting government takeover. If the measure were worthwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contended before
the vote, "they wouldn’t be rushing it through Congress on Christmas Eve."
The occasion was moving for
many who’d followed Kennedy, who died in August.
"He’s having a merry Christmas in Heaven," Sen. Paul
Kirk, D-Mass., appointed to fill Kennedy’s seat, told reporters after the tally.
Kirk said he was "humbled
to be here with the honor of casting essentially his vote."