Senate faces weekend storm over health bill

The Senate is expected to endure a stormy weekend as the Democrats’ self-imposed Christmas deadline for passing a healthcare reform bill looms, with the first of many procedural votes set for shortly after daybreak on Saturday.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the upper chamber, is now racing against the clock to get his $848bn bill passed, amid mounting threats from Republicans and increasing discord in his own caucus.

“We’re going to finish this healthcare bill before we leave for the holidays,” said Mr Reid, who is due to unveil his “manager’s amendment” – severalhundred pages of changes to the 2,074-page healthcare bill – on Saturday.

This morning’s vote will set in train a series of 30-hour countdowns that would require the Senate to stay in session around the clock so that a vote on healthcare could be held at 7pm on Christmas Eve.

However, complicating the procedural matters and the already fractious debate on the substance of the bill is a storm warning. Washington is forecast to get 20 inches of snow this weekend, potentially bringing the district to a standstill.

Mr Reid was still trying on Friday to secure the 60 votes he needs to pass his bill, which would extend healthcare coverage to 30m uninsured Americans, without Republicans being able to block it. With Democrats holding 58 seats and aligned independents occupying two, every vote counts.

But Democrats were still struggling to find language on abortion funding to accommodate Ben Nelson of Nebraska. “Hopefully, we’re making a lot of progress,” Mr Nelson said on Friday.

Mr Nelson is holding out for changes that would strengthen the prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, while liberals are furious that so many of their demands have been dropped toplacate moderates.

Republicans, meanwhile, are incensed, accusing Democrats of trying to railroad through a bill that will have far-reaching implications for the US economy.

“We don’t want this bill to pass and we’re going to do everything we can not to complete it,” said Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate.

Since no Republicans and only a few Democrats have seen the working draft of the bill, John McCain said the Republicans might ask for the entire bill to be read out loud on the Senate floor this weekend. “If we haven’t seen it, don’t you think we should have time to at least examine it,” Mr McCain told reporters.

A poll on Friday showed that the politicking was damping support for the bill. The proportion of Americans who say the country would be better off if healthcare reform passes fell from 54 per cent in November to 45 per cent this month, according to the Kaiser Health poll.

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