One hurdle down, a whole lot to go

ONE HURDLE DOWN, A WHOLE LOT TO GO…. If there’s any chance at all to see health care reform clear the Senate by Christmas, there are a series of hoops, most of them procedural, the chamber will have to jump through. The first came in the wee hours of the morning.

Temporary funding for U.S. troops is set to expire tonight at midnight, so the Senate leadership was anxious to approve a Defense spending bill with the strict deadline in mind. Senate Republicans had a different idea — if they could delay consideration of the Pentagon budget, they could in turn delay consideration of health care.

They weren’t even subtle about it. Asked if he would vote for the Defense bill, which Republicans routinely support, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas replied, “No. I don’t want health care.”

So, GOP members, in a rather brazen move, actually launched a filibuster against troop funding, not because they’re against the bill, but because they want to derail the health care debate. About seven hours ago, the effort failed.

At least for now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has managed to stay on schedule to pass health care legislation by Christmas after the Senate early Friday morning agreed to vote on the Defense spending bill and get it out of the way.

The 63-33 cloture vote, which began just after 1 a.m. Friday morning, capped a turbulent day in which Reid came close to being undone thanks to an unlikely confluence of events.

Some of the drama surrounded Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, arguably the fiercest Democratic critic of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Feingold made it clear that he wanted to oppose cloture on Pentagon spending, but he also saw very clearly that Republicans were playing a ridiculous game. Feingold refused to play along — he announced that he would vote for cloture, preventing additional delays on health care, and then oppose the Defense spending bill in the up-or-down vote.

If only the rest of the Senate appreciated the distinction between procedural votes — letting the Senate have its say on a measure — and the underlying bill.

This doesn’t mean the Senate will vote on health care reform by Christmas — I’d say the odds are still pretty discouraging — but it at least keeps Reid and the rest of the leadership on track for the possibility, shameful GOP obstructionism notwithstanding.