WASHINGTON - Casting its first votes on revamping the nation's health-care system, the Senate rejected a Republican bid yesterday to stave off Medicare cuts and approved safeguards for coverage of mammograms and other preventive tests for women.
Senators voted 58-42 to reject an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) that would have stripped more than $400 billion in Medicare cuts from the nearly $1 trillion measure.
It also would have sent the entire 2,074-page bill back to the Senate Finance Committee for a redo.
A competing amendment by Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) underscoring that no benefits in traditional Medicare would be cut by the legislation, passed 100-0.
Republicans said the proposed cuts to health-insurance plans and medical providers mean seniors in the popular Medicare Advantage program will lose benefits.
"Medicare is already in trouble. The program needs to be fixed, not raided to create another new government program," said Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Democrats said seniors will not lose any guaranteed benefits. The cuts - amounting to a 2 percent slowdown in spending - will help keep Medicare solvent by making it more efficient, they contended.
And they pointed out that the health-care overhaul bill improves preventive care and prescription coverage.
"My colleagues on the Republican side have resorted to the politics of fear to preserve a broken health-care system," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa). "What we're hearing are scare tactics designed to mislead seniors."
AARP, the seniors' lobby, threw its weight behind the Democrats.
The first votes were held under a special agreement requiring 60 votes to prevail. That tested the coalition Democrats are counting on to move President Obama's signature issue.
The margin was close on the women's health amendment, which aims to safeguard coverage of mammograms and preventive screening tests under a revamped system.
The 61-39 vote on a provision by Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R., Maine) was the first substantive ballot in an acrimonious debate that promises to go on for weeks.
The Mikulski amendment gives the health and human services secretary authority to require health plans to cover additional preventive services for women.
The Congressional Budget Office said the amendment would cost $940 million over a decade.