Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Ending weeks of speculation, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) announced Saturday afternoon that they will vote with the Senate's Democratic majority to move forward on the 2,000-plus page health insurance reform bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled this week.
Landrieu stressed that her vote to begin discussion of the measure does not ensure her support to pass the bill. "My vote today should in no way be construed as an indication of how I might vote as this debate comes to an end," she said. "After a thorough review, I have decided that there are enough significant reforms and safeguards in this bill to move forward, but more needs to be done."
She also addressed media reports that Reid's bill includes a special provision directing $100 million to Louisiana for Medicaid payments. "I am not going to be defensive about asking for help in this situation," Landrieu said, noting that the bill actually includes $300 million for her state and that Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, supported the request. "I am proud to have asked for it. I am proud to have fought for it. That is not the reason I am moving to debate."
After Landrieu's announcement, Lincoln declared that she, too, would support Reid on tonight's vote. Had the two senators not gone with the Democrats, the measure would have failed by two votes and Reid would have been forced to modify the language until he could muster enough support to go on.
Like Landrieu, Lincoln said that she wants changes to the bill-- including striking the public option entirely--before she'll vote to pass it. But, she said, "I have concluded that it is more more important to begin debate rather than simply dropping the issue and walk away."
Lincoln has been the subject of intense lobbying by health care reform activists, as well as the target of withering criticism by Republicans preparing a challenge for her Senate seat next year. "I will not allow my decision to be dictated by my political opponents nor by interests from outside of Arkansas," she said.
As the day began, advocates for and against health care reform bill mobilized to influence the outcome of Saturday's vote.
Leaders of the Tea Party Patriots blasted an email to members, urging them to call and fax the offices of 11 targeted Democratic senators, especially Lincoln, to oppose the bill, while the White House released talking points stressing the benefits of the legislation.
Republicans and Democrats spoke throughout the day as the clock ticked toward Saturday's rare evening vote, with tempers clearly worn thin. Republicans cited reports from the Congressional Budget Office and other independent auditors that the bill will raise taxes, raise health insurance premiums, cut Medicare and create hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded mandates for states.
Reid began the debate by rebuking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had warned that anyone who votes with Reid tonight will have to explain that decision in their home states.
"Now that is really Orwellian," Reid said. "That is Orwellian. Have a lot of explaining to do if they allow a debate to continue?"
As the Senate slogged through its Saturday session, President Obama headed to Andrews Air Force Base for a round of golf, according to the official White House pool report.
If all 60 Democrats vote as promised, the night will give Reid a much-needed boost of party unity going into what will be a divisive and heated debate on the bill as a whole. The Senate vote is scheduled to begin at 8:00 p.m. Saturday.