WASHINGTON — In a final drive to thwart President Barack Obama's health care remake, Republican senators plan to force Democrats to run a gantlet of politically dicey votes before they can finish a companion bill to the landmark law.
Voting was expected to start late Wednesday on a full list of Republican amendments to a "sidebar" bill making changes Democrats agreed to in the main legislation already signed by Obama. Major components of the "fix" legislation include scaling back a tax on high-cost insurance plans opposed by labor unions, closing the coverage gap in the Medicare prescription benefits, and higher taxes on upper-income earners.
But Republicans have other ideas. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wants a vote on his amendment to prohibit coverage of Viagra for sex offenders. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, wants savings from Medicare cuts plowed back into the health care program for seniors, instead of being used to expand coverage to the uninsured. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., wants to gut penalties on employers whose workers wind up getting taxpayer subsidized coverage.
Democrats are vowing to bat down the GOP amendments one-by-one. Should they lose on any major financing component, the bill would have to go back to the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has put members on notice they may be needed to vote on any changes that get through the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat accused Republicans of refusing to accept the finality of the health care overhaul.
"This is a political exercise for too many on the other side of the aisle," said Sen. Dick Durbin. "We're going to tell our people back home, 'It's time to govern. It's time to lead.' "
Durbin appeared on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday with GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who had said last year he believed the health care overhaul would turn out to Obama's "Waterloo."
"America doesn't want a broken presidency," said Durbin, D-Ill.
DeMint did not back down, saying "Americans are very angry," not only with the substance of the sweeping health care bill Obama signed into law Tuesday, but also with the process Democrats used to muscle it through Congress.
The fixes under consideration by the Senate were demanded by House Democrats as their price for passing the mammoth overhaul legislation that will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans over the next decade.
"They're hoping that Americans don't notice this is another power grab," DeMint said of Democrats. "So we're going to bring these issues up." He accused Democrats of breaking "a lot of protocols" in the Senate and said he couldn't imagine Republicans working very hard to cooperate with Obama and Democrats on other issues.
As he put his signature on the bill at a celebrative White House ceremony, Obama declared "a new season in America" and hailed an accomplishment that had been denied to a line of presidents stretching back more than half a century.
Approval of the fix-it bill at the end of this week is virtually assured, since it's being debated under fast-track budget rules that allow passage with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes usually required for action in the 100-seat Senate. Democrats control 59 Senate seats.
That didn't stop Republicans, who are unanimously opposed, from using the floor debate that began Tuesday afternoon as an opportunity to repeat the accusations they've lobbed at Obama's health legislation for the past year: that it raises taxes, slashes Medicare and includes a burdensome and constitutionally questionable requirement for nearly all Americans to carry health insurance.
The main suspense surrounding this week's debate is whether the fix-it bill can emerge from the Senate unchanged. If it does, it can go straight to the president for his signature, since it's already passed the House. If the Senate changes it even in a minor way, the legislation would have to go back to the House to be passed again, a prospect House leaders are prepared for but say they don't expect.
Although the battle may soon be over on Capitol Hill, opponents already have launched a campaign from the outside, with 13 state attorneys general suing Tuesday to overturn the legislation on grounds it is unconstitutional.
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., served notice Tuesday of the GOP's continued campaign against the legislation going into the fall election season. "The slogan will be 'repeal and replace,' 'repeal and replace,'" McConnell said.
Obama planned to sign an executive order Wednesday affirming existing law against federal funding of abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the woman's life. A critical bloc of anti-abortion Democrats in the House had pledged to vote against the health care package unless given greater assurances that it would not amend current law.
In a last-minute deal, Obama agreed to issue the order to get their votes.