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Reid clears major health care hurdle, daunting weeks ahead

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AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., center left, gets a hug by Sen. Jay Rockefeller D-W.Va, as Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., left and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, looks on after the U.S. Senate voted to begin debate on legislation for a broad health care overhaul at Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009.

Updated Saturday, Nov. 21, 2009 | 7:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON — With the Senate vote tonight to open debate on the Democrats’ health care reform bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid crossed one hurdle in the most profound test yet of his leadership skills but is about to face another.

After the final tally was announced, 60-39, visitors in the Senate gallery both cheered and booed, showing the divide the issue of health care reform has carved in the country.

For all the weeks of intense and delicate deliberations behind the closed doors of Reid’s second-floor Capitol office to arrive at this moment, the weeks ahead will prove equally daunting.

The difficulties could be heard in the floor speeches on Saturday afternoon. The hold-out senators, including Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, announced they would support starting debate but expressed opposition to the bill as written.

Reid must secure 60 votes again to pass the bill — votes he does not now have.

A particular concern remains the public plan option — the government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers that critics denounce as socialism.

No sooner were tonight’s votes cast than Reid told reporters that several senators, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who had been another of the hold-outs, were working on a public plan alternative to the one in the bill.

“They’re working together to find a public option acceptable to all Democrats,” Reid said, while reiterating that he personally supported a “strong public option.”

“We can see the finish line now,” Reid said after the vote, “but we’re not there yet.”

The vote tonight came a few minutes before 8 p.m. in Washington, with the gallery packed with onlookers. Reid requested that each senator be at their desk for the vote — a more formal process, as usually senators can stroll in and out of the chamber during the voting period.

Republican Sen. John Ensign, who had not been part of Saturday’s debate — he had made a presentation against the health care bill the night before — was among the early senators in their seats.

Ensign voted against advancing the bill.

Every other Republican senator also voted no, as expected, except Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, who was absent.

Republicans warned that if Democrats did not halt the bill’s advance in tonight’s vote, they would be seen as giving it their approval.

Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the 2,074-page bill a “monstrosity” and searched for “just one” Democratic senator to halt its momentum.

“The easiest time to change this bill would be right now,” the Republican leader suggested, offering a lesson in Senate strategy just hours before the vote.

As it became all but certain Reid had the 60 votes needed to advance the bill, McConnell took to the floor to denounce what he called a “massive monument to bureaucracy.”

But Reid, in his final speech before the vote, told his colleagues that the Senate, known as the world’s greatest deliberative body, should deliberate the greatest issue of the day.

“Be not afraid of debate,” Reid said. “It’s our job.”

And what a debate over the next several weeks it will be.

McConnell has promised a “freewheeling” and “extensive debate, with many amendments.”

“If we did anything less than that,” warned the minority leader, noting opposition to the bill, “the American people would storm the Capitol.”

Reid hopes to pass the bill by year’s end and will need 60 votes at various points along the way, including final passage of the legislation that is President Barack Obama’s top domestic policy priority — one that is now inextricably linked to Reid’s own re-election in 2010.

After the vote, several senators stopped to greet Reid at his desk at the front of the chamber, shaking his hand and patting his back. Reid accomplished a major feat in keeping his diverse caucus together on a pivotal vote.

But Reid had his own expressions of gratitude to deliver and made his way toward the middle of the chamber.

First he stopped off at Landrieu’s desk where, when they clasped hands, he kissed one of hers.

Then he continued to the back of the chamber to greet Lincoln with a hug.

Reid will need them, and the others, all over again in coming weeks.

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