Senate Passes Health Insurance Overhaul

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WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed a health insurance overhaul on Thursday morning, 60-39, as both Democrats and Republicans held unified in their positions on the massive bill that mandates coverage for about 9 percent of the U.S. population now without insurance.

All 58 Democrats and two independents supported the $871 billion, 10-year package that aims to cover about 30 million Americans. Thirty-nine of 40 Republicans rejected the bill. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, did not vote.

President Obama congratulated the Senate for its early morning action.

"With passage of reform bills in both the House and Senate, we are now finally poised to deliver on the promise of real, meaningful, health insurance reform that will bring additional security and stability to the American people," Obama said at the White House before leaving with his family for a 10-day Hawaii vacation.

"As I've said before, these are not small reforms, these are big reforms. If passed, this will be the most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s, and the most important reform of our healthcare system since Medicare passed in the 1960s," Obama continued.

Senate lawmakers moved quickly after the vote to pass one more bill -- a $290 billion hike in the debt ceiling needed to prevent a U.S. default on loans -- passing it on a 60-39 vote before scattering across the nation ahead of their Christmas break.

Facing the certainty that Senate Democrats were lined up to pass the landmark legislation, Republican senators said they are resolved to fight to the bitter end to prevent the bill from being implemented.

"That's the clear will of the American people and we're going to fight on their behalf," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said just moments before the vote.

McConnell added that he hoped that voters would use the congressional break between Dec. 24 and Jan. 19, when the Senate returns, to appeal to lawmakers to stop the bill before the unpopular bill becomes law. The House returns on Jan. 12.

Now that both the House of Representatives and Senate have finished their votes -- the House passed its version in November -- the two chambers must reconcile their starkly different bills.

Some congressional offices have been floating the idea that the House accept the Senate version whole cloth in order to get it to President Obama's desk in time for the State of the Union address, but it was unclear whether that would be acceptable to many House Democrats, and the negotiations could slip into February.

Vice President Joe Biden returned to his old haunt to preside over the historic vote as president of the Senate, and was greeted warmly by former colleagues from both sides of the aisle. But in his role atop the dais, Biden listened while McConnell excoriated the legislation.

"Many people on this side who are going to support this bill don't like it. Otherwise Democratic leaders would not have had such a tough time rounding up votes," McConnell said, noting that Democratic leaders held votes in the "middle of the night, at the crack of dawn, overnight, in the middle of a blizzard" and on Christmas eve.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid countered that Republicans tried their hardest to "slow the progress, they can't stop it."

Reid also slammed the GOP for choosing "to stand on the sidelines rather than participate in great change." He said Republicans have repeated "myths and misinformation and continued to rely on them long after they were debunked."

Reid praised the bill as one that would stop "greedy insurance companies" from driving the sick into bankruptcy and would "slice the deficit."

The Senate measure, in addition to extending coverage to millions of people who lack it, 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 do so. Employers would be induced to cover their employees through a combination of tax credits and penalties.

Unlike the House, the Senate measure omits a government-run insurance option, which liberals favored to apply pressure on private insurers but Democratic moderates opposed as an unwarranted federal intrusion.

In an interview with PBS, Obama signaled he would sign a bill even if it lacks the provision.

"Would I like one of those options to be the public option? Yes. Do I think that it makes sense, as some have argued, that, without the public option, we dump all these other extraordinary reforms and we say to the 30 million people who don't have coverage: 'You know, sorry. We didn't get exactly what we wanted?' I don't think that makes sense," Obama said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.