Where things stand

WHERE THINGS STAND…. At this point, every step forward has a certain historic significance. The Senate voted 60 to 39 last night to bring a health care reform bill to the floor for the first time ever, marking the latest in a series of milestones. But that there was any drama at all surrounding last night’s vote underscores the silliness of the process — there was a lengthy, overwrought debate yesterday about whether to have an even longer, more overwrought debate in December.

Or put another way, yesterday’s vote (supermajority on the motion to proceed) makes it possible to have other votes (supermajority on amendments), which will make it possible to have another vote (supermajority on cloture), which will hopefully lead to another vote (final passage).

And while last night’s vote was far more difficult than it should have been — every Republican in the Senate opposed even talking about health care reform — it was the easiest hurdle to clear.

Two reluctant Democratic senators, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, warned that their support for a motion to open debate did not guarantee that they would ultimately vote for the bill. Their remarks echoed previous comments by several other senators, including Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut.

Those comments made clear that more horse-trading lies ahead and that major changes might be required if the bill is to be approved. And it suggested that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who relied only on members aligned with his party to bring the bill to the floor, may yet have to sway one or more Republicans to his side to get the bill adopted.

If the Senate leadership had 59 votes lined up for cloture, finagling one lone holdout would be tricky enough. But as the bill currently stands, there are four holdouts who are all prepared to vote with Republicans to kill health care reform. Indeed, two of the four — Lieberman and Lincoln — were pretty emphatic about their intentions yesterday, leaving themselves no meaningful wiggle room.

Much of the debate will focus on the public option, of course, but votes on abortion, immigrants, subsidy rates, and medical malpractice will be nearly as contentious.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said late yesterday, “The battle has just begun.” It was the only accurate remark he made all day.

Last night was another achievement that keeps the ball rolling. Regrettably, it’s still rolling uphill.

The debate is expected to resume a week from tomorrow and extend through December. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) still intends to pass a bill by Christmas.