WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to approve today the start of a historic debate over health care legislation aimed at making coverage easier, less expensive to obtain and harder to lose.
The vote to allow full debate, called a "cloture motion," is scheduled for 8 p.m. and requires 60 votes to cut off a Republican-led effort to block consideration of the bill. If that hurdle is cleared, debate would begin after Thanksgiving.
To ensure passage of the cloture motion, Majority Leader Harry Reid needs the votes of all 58 Democrats and two independents, but two moderate Democrats are still said to be wavering.
One previously undecided Democratic centrist, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, said Friday that he will vote to proceed, but he stressed that his vote "is not for or against the new Senate health care bill. … It is only to begin debate and an opportunity to make improvements."
Still undecided were Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is viewed as the most reluctant holdout.
Lincoln had insisted that the health care bill be posted publicly on the Internet for 72 hours before the vote, which it was. That time expires when the vote is scheduled to start. The second-term senator faces the thorniest political situation: She is up for re-election next year, and polls show her prospects uncertain.
On the other hand, because today's vote can be painted largely as a procedural test, it is not likely to have much effect on Lincoln's political status, said Janine Parry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.
"It's too inside baseball," she said.
Landrieu has had reservations about the bill's impact on small business, as well as its cost, but the measure contains at least $100 million in potential aid to her state's Medicaid program, which provides coverage for the poor. Landrieu aides said she has been fighting for the money for a long time but that its inclusion had nothing to do with how she might vote today.
Should the Senate vote to proceed, a full floor debate on the 2,074-page bill is expected to begin the week of Nov. 30 and continue at least through late December. The measure would cost an estimated $848 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by cuts in spending on Medicare and Medicaid and by raising a variety of taxes and fees.
It would require most Americans to obtain health insurance and would bar insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions. People could shop for coverage through insurance exchanges, or marketplaces, and one of their options would be a new government-run health insurance plan, or public option. Individual states could opt out of the plan.
The government plan is supposed to help bring down costs by making insurance more competitive and universal. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, estimates that only 3 million to 4 million people would buy insurance through the plan, and their premiums probably would be "somewhat higher than the average premiums" for private plans sold through the exchange.
The changes would be paid for with an estimated $491 billion in savings from current federal health care plans and tax increases on the wealthy over the next 10 years. The CBO estimates that the bill would cut the federal budget deficit by $130 billion over the next decade.
The House of Representatives passed its version of the health care overhaul Nov. 7. If the Senate passes legislation, the bills would be reconciled through House-Senate negotiations. Each chamber would vote on the resulting compromise, probably early next year.
First, however, the Senate needs to approve today's motion.