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Health debate in Senate moves toward gridlock
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate debate on a sweeping healthcare overhaul stumbled toward gridlock on Wednesday, with frustrated Democrats considering new procedural moves after Republicans blocked votes on the first amendments.
On the third day of a divisive debate, Democrats threatened to keep the Senate in session through the Christmas holiday if necessary to pass a healthcare reform bill that President Barack Obama has made his top domestic priority.
Republicans refused to agree to the timing of votes on either of the first two amendments -- a Democratic plan to ease access to preventive health screenings for women and a Republican effort to restore more than $400 billion in cuts in Medicare, the government health program for the elderly and disabled.
After a hastily called strategy session, Democrats accused Republicans of stalling and said they would consider filing motions to cut off debate or kill Republican amendments.
"Unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin," said Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
"We're not going to let them run this bill into the ground into next year," he told reporters. "They want to drag this out in the hopes that our desire to go home for Christmas means we'll walk away from healthcare reform."
Democrats stuck to their pledge to pass the bill by the end of the year. "If we have to be here for Christmas, we'll be here for Christmas," Democratic Senator Tom Harkin said.
Republicans said concerns about plans to revamp the $2.5 trillion healthcare system -- one-sixth of the U.S. economy -- needed a full public airing. The slow pace and lengthy debate were a tradition of the Senate, they said.
'JUST GETTING STARTED'
"The people expect to have a right to weigh in," Republican Senator Lamar Alexander told reporters. "The Senate is a place where we have generally unlimited debate, generally unlimited amendments, so we're just getting started on this bill."
Republicans had promised to try to block or delay the legislation, and a Senate Republican aide said the debate should last at least as long as the month Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid spent crafting the bill behind closed doors.
The House of Representatives passed its version last month. If the Senate passes a bill, the two versions will have to be reconciled and passed again by each chamber before being sent to Obama for his signature.
The Senate plan is designed to rein in costs, expand coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans and halt industry practices such as denying coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Its bill would require everyone to have insurance, provide federal subsidies to help them pay for coverage and establish a new government-run insurance option to compete with private industry.
Democratic procedural options are limited by Senate rules designed to protect the rights of the minority, with most agreements requiring unanimous consent.
Democrats said Reid would begin soon to file motions to kill the Republican amendments, which require a majority vote for approval. That was likely to short-circuit debate and prompt retaliatory moves from Republicans.
"What we are trying to do is engage in a debate that will actually lead to votes on amendments," Durbin said.
Reid could also file a motion to cut off debate on each amendment, or on the entire bill, but that requires 60 votes and requires several days of debate for each motion.
"That doesn't work very well. That works OK on one or two amendments but that doesn't work on hundreds of amendments," Harkin said.
Democrats control exactly 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, but many moderate Democrats have objected to provisions in the existing bill. Keeping the fragile coalition together on a series of procedural votes would be difficult.
"You put your head down and press ahead and use the rules of the Senate and procedures to get it done," Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said of Democratic plans for the bill.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)
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