WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Nelson, the last apparent obstacle to giving Democrats the votes they need to move forward with historic health care legislation, Saturday said he had agreed to compromises that would allow him to vote for the measure.
“I intend to vote for cloture (ending extended debate) and for health care reform,” the Nebraska Democrat said.
His support breaks the logjam that had threatened to derail the entire effort, and Saturday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, began taking the final steps that are now likely to lead to passage of the bill before Christmas.
The first, and most crucial, vote on cutting off a Republican-led filibuster is now expected early Monday morning. Others are expected later in the week, with a vote on final passage likely Wednesday or Thursday.
With Nelson on board, Reid Saturday formally offered a compromise package that includes restrictions on federal abortion funding the Nelson said he could back.
According to the senator, the bill will ensure that no public funds will be used for abortion, require that every state provide an insurance plan option that does not cover abortion and gives each state the right to pass a law barring insurance coverage for abortion within state borders.
At a news conference, Nelson recalled his longstanding opposition to abortion, and his battles to restrict federal funding.
After a week of talks aimed at maintaining tough restrictions, Nelson said, “I believe I have accomplished that goal.”
Reid had announced a tentative deal on the bill nearly two weeks ago, but could not finally seal the deal until he locked up 60 votes. The centerpiece of that deal remained in his compromise Saturday, a plan to have health insurance companies offer plans, under the supervision of the federal Office of Personnel Management, and offered nationwide. At least one plan would be non-profit.
Democrats control 60 of the Senate’s 100 seats, enough to cut off debate, but Nelson had refused for days to join his 59 colleagues in saying he would vote with them. His biggest concern was abortion language. Last week, the Senate rejected, by a 54-45 vote, senators rejected a bid by Nelson to put strict limits on federal abortion funding.
The House of Representatives health care bill puts strict limits on federal funding of abortion, and if the Senate passes its bill, negotiators, or conferees, will craft a compromise plan early next year.
“If there are material changes in that conference report different from this bill that adversely affect the agreement,” Nelson warned, “I reserve the right” to vote against cutting off debate in the future.
Republicans continued to oppose the bill, and the Senate was expected to spent its entire day Saturday having clerks read the Reid proposal’s text, which the GOP had demanded.
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