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By 60-39 Vote, Senate Agrees to Open Debate on Healthcare Bill

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Healthcare reform cleared its first hurdle in the Senate this weekend. In a party line vote of 60-39, the Senate voted Saturday evening to open debate on the bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. All fifty-eight Democrats and both Independents voted in favor of the motion, while thirty-nine out of forty Republicans voted against it. At a news conference immediately following the vote, Reid said, “The road ahead is a long stretch, but we can see the finish line.” We speak to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post about the vote and the House Finance Committee’s vote to audit the Federal Reserve. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Healthcare reform cleared its first hurdle in the Senate this weekend. In a party line vote of 60 to 39, the Senate voted Saturday evening to open debate on the bill put forward by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. All fifty-eight Democrats and both Independents voted in favor of the motion, while thirty-nine out of forty Republicans voted against it. At a news conference immediately following the vote, Reid said, quote, “The road ahead is a long stretch, but we can see the finish line.”

HARRY REID: Don’t try to silence a great debate over a great crisis. Don’t let history show that when given the chance to debate and defend your position, to work with us for the good of our country and constituents, you ran and hid. You cannot wish away a great emergency by closing your eyes and pretending it doesn’t exist. There is an emergency, and it exists, and it exists now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the Senate version of the healthcare bill, I’m joined from Washington, DC, by Ryan Grim, the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post.

Ryan, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this bill.

RYAN GRIM: Amy, really, nobody should underestimate how significant this procedural vote on Saturday night was. People might want to portray it as, you know, simply a matter of moving to debate, but the fact that sixty Democrats, sixty members of the Democratic Caucus, could unite behind the leader and push this forward against all forty of the Republican senators shows that Democrats are least united in getting something done. And it’s a sizable something, whether or not the public option even ends up in the final bill. This is, you know, one of the biggest social programs that has made it this far in the Senate in probably a generation. You know, there are going to be tremendous amounts of subsidies that are going to go to low-, working- and middle-class Americans so that they can purchase private health insurance. Now, if there’s no public health insurance option, that could also amount to just a giant giveaway to private insurers, but at least the giveaway would come with them turning around and giving people health insurance.

Now, the big question that’s going to face Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats over the next couple weeks is this public health insurance option. You have folks like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, who are uncomfortable with a public option. But then you have people on the left — Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, even Roland Burris — saying that they’re not going to support something unless it meets what they want. So, Reid has to try to find where he can cobble together the sixty votes. But what’s interesting is that they’re no longer debating whether to have a public option, but it’s now what form it will take.

And it looks like something is shaping up around Tom Carper, who is — he’s a Democrat from Delaware, kind of a centrist conservative guy, who — he was the guy that sort of originally proposed this public option that would allow individual states to opt out of it. I think he might have been a little bit surprised, actually, that it did so well and that it’s become, you know, the central part of this debate. Now he’s coming in with a new plan that, instead of an opt-out, there would be an opt-in, but if states didn’t opt in and insurance is unaffordable in those states, then they’re automatically enrolled. So if somebody like Alabama says, you know, “We don’t want to be part of this,” but insurance is unaffordable in the state, then they’re automatically enrolled in it. Now, I talked to Olympia Snowe on Saturday night, and she said that Carper has asked her for elements of her trigger language. So it looks like Snowe and Carper might try to meld something that could maybe get the support of people like Landrieu and Nelson, who aren’t ideologues about the thing like Joe Lieberman is, and that could get you to sixty.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened with the, well, Stupak amendment in the House, this whole battle over women’s right to choose being included and covered by health insurance. What’s happening in the Senate, Ryan Grim?

RYAN GRIM: This was something that you could kind of see coming in the House, because you have this bloc of — apparently it’s sixty-four Democrats now who are willing to vote for extreme, extreme restrictions on reproductive freedom. So they were able to accomplish the biggest rollback of reproductive rights in probably a generation, which, you know, they passed this Stupak amendment, which would in many cases prevent women from spending their own money on private plans that cover abortion.

Now, the Senate pushed back on this. Paradoxically, the Senate is actually more progressive on the issue of choice. You know, there are a lot of different reasons for that. Partly it’s because you have senators who represent entire states rather than just tiny kind of center-right or right-wing districts. And they just simply do not have sixty votes to push through the extreme rollback of reproductive rights. So, what they did is they put into the Senate bill language that says no federal money will go to abortion, and that is intended to satisfy folks who say that they don’t want their tax dollars to fund abortion procedures.

So, the folks who then say, “Well, you know, money is fungible, and if I give you a dollar here, you might spend a dollar somewhere else,” they said, “Well, OK, the Health and Human Services secretary can audit these insurance plans to make sure that this dollar here is not going to fund this project over here.” Now, of course, the irony here is that churches are the ones making this argument that money is fungible. At the same time, churches get tax — you know, get all kinds of tax breaks and government money. And then at the same time, they do government lobbying, and they say, “Well, we’re not doing the government lobbying with these tax breaks, and we have separate entities.” So, clearly, you know, they’re of the opinion that you can separate funds. So, that’s all that the Senate does. And it is going to set up a fight on the House side, so Pelosi’s going to have her work cut out for her to get it through.

Now, it’s unlikely, though, that these sixty-four Democratic House members are all going to hold together to block healthcare reform. A number of them have said that if it comes down to killing the bill, that they’re not willing to take that step. These are still, you know, believe it or not, Democrats. And if the Senate has passed this landmark historic healthcare reform legislation, sent it over to the House, and the only thing standing between President Obama and this healthcare reform bill are these Democrats, enough of them, I think, are probably going to come on board for it and just swallow it and vote for the compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, the position of Bernie Sanders, the Independent of Vermont, the Democratic Socialist of Vermont?

RYAN GRIM: He’s been inching closer and closer to drawing a line in the sand over the last several months. And he makes a very clear and, frankly, a convincing case. He says, look, this is a Democratic written bill. More than 80 percent of Democrats want a public option. More than fifty senators want a public option. So how are we going to let two, three or four conservative Democrats dictate to the rest of the party whether or not there’s going to be a public option in the bill? He has yet to make the final decision to filibuster a bill that does not include a public option. And if only one Democratic senator or member of the Democratic Caucus, which he is, decides to filibuster it, then they don’t have the votes unless they move to the right and can pick up a Snowe or Collins or somebody like that.

On Sunday he said that he would not vote for final passage of a healthcare bill if it didn’t include a public health insurance option. Now, that’s slightly different than saying that he would filibuster it. So, in other words, he would vote to end a filibuster, but then when it comes up for final passage, he won’t be there. But they only need fifty votes plus Joe Biden on final passage. But it’s a step closer. And in his statement, he said that he strongly suspects that there are other members of the Democratic Caucus that feel like he — feel the same way that he does. And I said Sherrod Brown and Roland Burris are among them. So, if you end up having a bloc of four, five, six Democrats who withhold their support, or one or two who say that they will filibuster a bill that doesn’t have a public option, then Reid simply has to deal with them, or the bill can’t get through. And that raises the pressure on people like Landrieu and Lieberman, who want to kill it from the opposite side.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, I wanted to move to the amendment to audit the Federal Reserve that passed the House Finance Committee last week. The amendment was co-sponsored by Representatives Ron Paul and Alan Grayson. This is Florida Democrat Grayson speaking before the vote.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: What kind of country are we going to have? Over the past few weeks and months of the past two years, we’ve seen the Federal Reserve hand out half-a-trillion dollars’ worth of money to foreign central banks — our money, money that cheapens the value of every dollar that’s in our pocket, every dollar that’s in our bank account, every dollar that’s in our 401(k). We’ve seen the Federal Reserve, among other things, remove $230 billion from Citibank’s liabilities for mortgage-backed securities and accept that liability itself, while leaving Citibank the entire upside in exchange for nothing. My own fear is that this can no longer go on. If we go on with a system where an organization is not responsive, is secretive, is more secretive, in fact, than the CIA, if we go on with a situation like that, where this organization is simply handing out our money, the US dollar, to private entities and to private interests, then the whole system will collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida Democrat Alan Grayson speaking in the House. Your response, Ryan Grim? Explain exactly what’s going on here.

RYAN GRIM: Well, lobbyists, staffers and other people watching this amendment process unfold were absolutely stunned that Ron Paul and Alan Grayson were able to beat the Fed on this. And the back story is pretty telling, and it is also kind of a road map forward for a kind of new kind of populist, progressive coalition politics that is now possible in the US Congress. Going into the vote, which was supposed to be on Wednesday, it was clear that, uncontested, the Paul-Grayson amendment had enough votes, because it was developed from a bill that has more than 300 co-sponsors, and there are enough of those people on the committee that they could have passed it through.

So the response from opponents of this bill was to introduce a new amendment, which they called, you know, a Serious, with a capital S, amendment. It was introduced by Mel Watt who represents Charlotte, where Bank of America happens to be, and it said, you know, we agree with you, we want transparency at the Federal Reserve, but, you know, these wacko Ron Paul, Alan Grayson types, they just want to destroy the Fed. And almost always in Washington, when you have this serious, reasonable kind of compromise come up the pike, then the moderates and some of the liberals who were supporting the other bill will say, “OK, you know what? Let’s move back to the center, and let’s take this reasonable approach forward.”

But what happened is that on Tuesday, Huffington Post reported that this Mel Watt amendment is not, in fact, just a compromised version of what Paul and Grayson are doing, but it actually adds restrictions to the ability to audit the Federal Reserve. It added four major restrictions of what could not be audited, which currently can, and it said that any audit that takes place must be done in accordance with current law. And current law bars, essentially, audits of the Federal Reserve. So, the amendment was a total sham.

Then the Watt amendment backers sent around a letter by what they called eight prominent economists backing his amendment rather than the Paul-Grayson type. Very interestingly, this letter was written in the beginning of November, you know, about a week before Watt unveiled his own amendment. So you can kind of guess where this came from. And what I did is I just Googled the eight economists who were on this letter. Seven of them had close ties to the Federal Reserve. Four of them are currently on the Federal Reserve payroll. So that kind of showed a little bit of operation in bad faith.

And so, what you had on Thursday, when the vote was held, was a real debate. So, you knew that the Federal Reserve was backing the Mel Watt amendment and that the Mel Watt amendment did not open the Fed to transparency, and the Paul-Grayson one did. And it’s rare in Congress, unfortunately, that votes are held with clear distinctions. There’s usually so much fog around this or that — you know, vote for this, it’s kind of what you want, but not all the way. This was like, no, in fact, this is not even close to what you want, it goes the opposite direction. And it was not just a squeaker; it was a crushing victory, because the fear among the Paul-Grayson backers was that they’d pass their amendment, and then the Watt one would come up, and that would also pass, and the Watt one would trump Paul-Grayson, and the entire effort to audit the Fed would be obliterated.

What the Paul-Grayson people were able to do was amend the Watt amendment by just wiping it out and replacing it with Paul-Grayson. Once they were able to accomplish that, fifteen Democrats joined pretty much every Republican, and they were able to pass it overwhelmingly. It was a stunning victory, especially after Chairman Barney Frank, who had previously said he was going to support Ron Paul, backed off and recommended a vote against Paul and for, you know, the centrist, quote-unquote, “compromise.”

Now, what’s interesting also is that the Republican support of this has to be taken —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

RYAN GRIM: — with a little bit of a grain of salt, because it only comes after they lost power. And it’s likely that they’re doing some of this just to cause trouble for the majority and for Obama. But as long as there are supporters here, there are ways to capitalize on it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, I want to thank you very much for being with us, of the Huffington Post, speaking to us from Washington, DC. When we come back from break, we are going to Toronto. We’ll be speaking with award-winning journalist Naomi Klein. Stay with us.

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