McConnell says health care battle not over

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to keep fighting efforts to pass a massive health care bill even as Democratic leaders declared victory Thursday after an early morning vote on the Senate version of the legislation.

"There is widespread opposition to this monstrosity. This fight isn't over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law," said McConnell, R-Ky.

The fight might not be over, but the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won a protracted battle over the shape and scope of Senate health care reform legislation that raged for weeks on Capitol Hill.

McConnell and other GOP senators fought until the final votes were cast Thursday morning, but Kentucky's junior Sen. Jim Bunning skipped the health care reform vote.

Bunning, who is not seeking a third term and strongly opposes the Democrats' health care reform efforts, did not respond to a request for comment.

McConnell, a lawmaker whose skill as a parliamentary tactician has long earned him begrudging nods of respect from across the aisle, debated fiercely from the floor and marshaled his caucus. Still, he was unable to overcome that chamber's Democratic voting majority.

The Senate voted 60 to 39 Thursday to overhaul the health care system — President Barack Obama's top 2009 domestic priority — moving the nation closer to near-universal health care coverage early in the next decade. The $871 billion bill would require most Americans to obtain health care coverage, and it would provide federal aid for those having difficulty affording it.

"Ever since Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform in 1912, seven presidents — Democrats and Republicans alike — have taken up the cause of reform," Obama said Thursday. "Time and time again, such efforts have been blocked by special-interest lobbyists who've perpetuated a status quo that works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people.

"But with passage of reform bills in both the House and the 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."

The health care vote was an important test for McConnell. As the titular head of a dwindled caucus, he had the difficult task of navigating his party through the debate while ensuring that the GOP wasn't steamrolled in the process.

When New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg sent Republican colleagues a memo on parliamentary strategy that they could use to offer amendments and extend debate earlier this month, the move offered a clue to how McConnell intended to navigate the health care debate. Democrats quickly labeled the letter an "obstructionist playbook" and pointed to the Kentucky lawmaker as the brainpower behind Republican stall tactics.

McConnell and Gregg waved off the criticism and feigned confusion about the Democrats' pique over the GOP's "innocuous" guidance to party members during a tongue-in-cheek exchange on the Senate floor.

Later, Republicans brought proceedings to a temporary standstill after demanding that a nearly 800-page amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, to include a sweeping single-payer system, be read into the record. McConnell had employed that strategy during last year's debate over global-warming legislation.

In the end, however, Sanders withdrew his amendment, and the Democrats' 60-seat majority ensured that McConnell was unable to use the tool that in past years had proved the greatest in his arsenal: the filibuster — blocking legislation by defeating efforts to cut off debate. The tenor of the Senate debate over health care legislation could foreshadow future debate on climate-change legislation and changes to immigration policies.

For his part, McConnell suggested that public sentiment might yet help turn the tide on health care reform.

"This debate was supposed to produce a bill that reformed health care in America," he said. "Instead, we're left with party-line votes in the middle of the night, a couple of sweetheart deals to get it over the finish line, and a public that's outraged."