LANDMARK HEALTH CARE BILL PASSES SENATE…. It wasn’t easy. It took nearly a full year of contentious debate. There were more than a few times in which it looked as if the struggle would come up short.

But this morning, the U.S. Senate did something it’s never done before: it passed a sweeping health care reform bill.

The Senate voted Thursday to reinvent the nation’s health care system, passing a bill to guarantee access to health insurance for tens of millions of Americans and to rein in health costs as proposed by President Obama.

The 60-to-39 party-line vote, on the 25th straight day of debate on the legislation, brings Democrats a step closer to a goal they have pursued for decades. It clears the way for negotiations with the House, which passed a broadly similar bill last month by a vote of 220 to 215.

Vice President Biden was on hand for the vote, making a rare appearance in the chamber he used to call home. The only senator not to vote was Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, who’s been absent for much of the week for unstated reasons.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted, “Nearly 65 years ago, Harry Truman condemned a system that condemns its citizens to the devastating economic side effects of sickness. Nearly 65 years later, we still suffer from the same. Just months after World War II came to a close, President Truman wrote this in a letter to Congress: ‘We should resolve now that the health of this nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the nation.’

“Decades passed and those financial barriers grew taller, but we never found that resolve — until today.”

Exactly what will happen next is still a little unclear. There may be a formal conference committee to resolve the differences between the Senate and House bills, or there may be informal talks among Democratic leaders, leading to separate House and Senate votes.

Lawmakers don’t return from their winter recess until mid-January — the House comes back on Jan. 12, the Senate six days later — but President Obama has said he’ll begin work on a final bill, merging to the two versions, well before then.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.