By Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 18, 2009
Senate Republicans said Thursday that they would try to filibuster a massive Pentagon bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unusual move that several acknowledged was an effort to delay President Obama's health-care legislation.
Late into the night, Democrats emerged from a huddle confident that they would muster the 60 votes needed to thwart the GOP effort at blocking the military spending bill as an antiwar liberal said he would set aside his reservations and support choking off the filibuster in order to keep the chamber on a timeline of holding a final health-care vote before Christmas. The vote on the defense spending bill was to occur after 1 a.m. Friday, too late for this edition.
The maneuvering occurred on a day when Democrats were still desperately trying to round up a 60th vote on the health-care legislation, as Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) rejected an abortion compromise aimed at bringing him on board. Nelson, the last holdout in the Democratic caucus and the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by White House officials, has said he would not support the package unless it explicitly bars the use of federal funds for abortion services.
If Nelson's support can be secured over the weekend, Democrats are hopeful that they will be able to begin clearing the parliamentary hurdles that would allow final passage of their version of the health-care legislation by Christmas Eve. That would meet their self-imposed deadline to pass the legislation and begin a negotiation with House Democrats to craft a final version to send to the president's desk.
Republicans have said their goal is to block the legislation and force Senate Democrats to go home and face their constituents, hoping for some supporters of the legislation to return after New Year's too fearful to back the legislation.
Part of that effort played out on the $626 billion spending bill for the Defense Department. If the filibuster on the defense bill succeeded, Democrats would have to scramble to find a way to fund the military operations because a stopgap funding measure expires at midnight Friday. Such an effort might have distracted from the health-care legislation for a day or two, disrupting the very tight timeline on health care.
"I don't want health care," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said in explaining his support of a filibuster. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee, which crafted the Pentagon funding bill.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and Christopher "Kit" Bond (Mo.) admitted they support the spending bill but acknowledged they were considering opposing it because of the health-care debate.
Democrats were furious. They believed they had a deal with Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, to support the bill, but by Thursday night Cochran was saying he was unsure how he would vote.
"They are prepared to jeopardize funding for troops at war," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday evening. "If Democrats did that, there would be cries of treason."
Anticipating no GOP votes, Democrats were required to deliver all 60 members of the caucus, something they were not expecting to have to do early in the day. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is a staunch opponent of the war and usually refuses to support even procedural votes on legislation funding Iraq and Afghanistan efforts. At the closed-door meeting Thursday evening, Feingold delivered a stirring talk to Democrats that indicated he would vote with them, leading to a round of applause that could be heard outside the room.
"I am not going to be part of a partisan and cynical effort to delay passage of the defense bill in order to block the Senate from considering health care reform," he said in a statement later. After voting to cut off the filibuster, Feingold expects to vote no on the final passage of the $626 billion spending bill for the Pentagon, a vote that will only require 51 votes to succeed.
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