WASHINGTON – The White House and Democrats are confidently predicting Senate passage of President Barack Obama's health overhaul by Christmas after the bill cleared its second 60-vote test.
"The finish line is in sight," Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Tuesday at a press conference with other Senate leaders and cheering supporters. "We're not the first to attempt such reforms but we will be the first to succeed."
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "Health care reform is not a matter of if. Health care reform is now a matter of when."
Senate Democrats remained united early Tuesday behind their compromise bill, over steadfast Republican opposition. A motion to shut off debate and move to a vote on a package of changes by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid passed 60-39.
The final 60-vote hurdle, limiting debate on the bill itself, is expected to be cleared Wednesday afternoon. That would start a 30-hour countdown to a night-before-Christmas vote on the legislation, which needs only a simple majority to pass.
The Senate has been voting at odd hours since Monday around 1 a.m. because Republicans have insisted on using all the time allowed under Senate rules to delay the bill. Not to be thwarted, Reid, D-Nev., has refused to postpone action until after the holidays. Hence the unusual schedule. On Tuesday, they started voting at sunrise.
With long hours getting in the way of family obligations — and the outcome now seemingly preordained — senators are getting frustrated. Even Obama has put his planned vacation to Hawaii on hold, saying he wants to be in Washington in case there are last-minute problems in the Senate.
Reid appealed to his colleagues Tuesday to set aside acrimony and reach for some holiday spirit.
"I would hope everybody will keep in mind that this is a time when we reflect on peace and good things," he said.
If Republicans agree, the schedule of votes could be shortened and senators would go home earlier. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that the parties were working on an agreement. Other senators suggested the final vote could come early Thursday instead of 7 p.m. or later as now scheduled.
Even so, partisan fires were still burning.
GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina denounced concessions won by conservative Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, whose support gave Democrats the 60th and final vote they need. Among other things, Nelson got an agreement that the federal government will pay to expand Medicaid services in Nebraska.
"That's not change you can believe in. That's sleazy," Graham said on NBC's "Today" show.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa defended the concessions, saying: "The one that's being talked about for Nebraska, it also benefits other states. It's not just Nebraska."
He also said he would vote for the package even if it didn't contain concessions for Iowa. "The principle of this bill overrides everything," Harkin told CBS' "Early Show."
Moderate Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has also been criticized after securing a boost in Medicaid for her state, defended the concessions she got, saying they benefited low-income families small businesses.
The Senate measure would still have to be harmonized with the health care bill passed by the House in November before final legislation would go to Obama.
There are significant differences between the two bills, including stricter abortion language in the House bill, a new government-run insurance plan in the House bill that's missing from the Senate version, and a tax on high-value insurance plans embraced by the Senate but strongly opposed by many House Democrats.
Senate moderates have served notice they won't support a final deal if government-run insurance comes back. And Democratic abortion opponents in the House say a Senate compromise on the volatile issue is unacceptable.
But there's considerable pressure on Democrats to avoid messy negotiations over a final bill. Public support for the legislation continues to sink in opinion polls.
The bills probably have more in common than differences. Each costs around $1 trillion over 10 years and installs new requirements for nearly all Americans to buy insurance, providing subsidies to help lower-income people do so. They're paid for by a combination of tax and fee increases and cuts in projected Medicare spending.