WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans lost their first major challenge to a Democratic plan to overhaul the health care system, as the Senate voted Thursday to reject a GOP proposal to strip the package of nearly $500 billion in Medicare cuts, its most important source of financing.
On a vote of 58 to 42, the Senate defeated an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have sent the bill back to committee with orders to remove the spending cuts. The amendment effectively would have forced Democrats back to the drawing board after months of negotiations to craft a bill that extends coverage to 30 million additional Americans without increasing budget deficits.
The Senate also approved an amendment that would guarantee access to mammograms for women younger than 50, as it cast its first votes on proposed changes to the sweeping health package.
Though debate officially opened Monday, progress has been hampered by disagreements between the two parties over the terms of debate and the timing of votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., still hopes to hold a vote on final passage before senators adjourn for the Christmas holidays, however, and on Thursday he told them to plan on working throughout the coming weekend.
Of four amendments considered Thursday, McCain’s was the most potentially damaging. Medicare, the government health program for people age 65 and older, is hugely popular, and seniors are already skeptical about the benefits of reform.
The health bill would slow Medicare spending by about 5 percent over the next decade, and Republicans argued that would decimate the program in order to finance insurance subsidies for younger people.
Democrats, backed by AARP and other major organizations representing seniors, argued that the cuts would extend the life of Medicare by several years without reducing guaranteed benefits or increasing co-payments.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted to ensure that women under 50 could obtain mammograms, despite a recent controversial recommendation by a government task force, and to prevent insurance companies from charging co-payments for that and other preventive tests for women.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., passed on a vote of 61 to 39.
“We are saying goodbye to an era when simply being a woman is treated as a pre-existing condition,” Mikulski said.