WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Senate Thursday approved on a largely party line vote a budget bill that would repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, two top priorities of Republicans who control the chamber.
Not to be outdone, Democrats seized the debate to try to force votes on gun control legislation that could put some Republicans in a politically tough position as the country is reeling from a recent spate of mass shootings.
By voting to nullify Obamacare — the signature domestic accomplishment of the Obama administration — GOP congressional leaders fulfilled a longtime pledge to voters and rank-and-file members to get a repeal to President Barack Obama’s desk, even though he will veto it.
The bill would also cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the women’s health group that provides abortions and has long under GOP scrutiny. Republicans’ passions to cutoff taxpayer dollars to the organization increased in recent months when videos were released that purported to show Planned Parenthood executives selling the tissue of aborted fetuses to researchers.
While the House and Senate have voted scores of times to repeal Obamacare, this was the first time they are using a special tool known as “budget reconciliation” that allow the measure to clear the Senate with just 51 votes instead of the 60 votes typically required for major legislation. That higher threshold has allowed Democrats to block all past repeal efforts.
By steering these two hot-button issues into the reconciliation bill, Republican leaders also steered them away from a separate must-pass government funding bill Congress is dealing with now known as the omnibus. Had those controversial issues been included in that bill, it would have made even harder to pass before the December 11 deadline when the government could shut down.
As with Obamacare, Senate Democrats have blocked recent efforts to defund the organization so the reconciliation bill became the GOP’s best option to move the measure.
“Middle class Americans continue to call on Washington to build a bridge away from Obamacare. They want better care. They want real health reform,” argued Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “For too long, Democrats did everything to prevent Congress from passing the type of legislation necessary to help these Americans who are hurting. Today that ends.”
During floor debate, Republicans recounted with frustration the 7 a.m. vote on Christmas eve morning in 2009 when the 60 Democrats who held a filibuster-proof margin of control “crammed” the bill through Senate, in the words of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, without a single Republican vote.
“The American people knew this wouldn’t work, they opposed it from the beginning. They opposed the philosophy of it and they knew we were going to have a mess on our hands,” Sessions said.
Others, like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, argued there was no way for the law to be sustained in the long run without GOP backing. “It was a terrible mistake,” Cornyn said about the way Democrats and the President pushed the bill through.
Democrats countered that Republicans were wasting time with more political show votes.
“What they’re doing on this reconciliation is just going nowhere,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday. “They want to do this to satisfy a few radical right-wing people who they have joined forces with. Another charade may make some Republican senators feel better, but it won’t make law.”
Democrats launch gun control debate
In recent months, many Senate Democrats have grown increasingly agitated at their inability to respond to the growing number of mass shootings across the country and pass tougher gun control legislation and measures to help mentally unstable people before they carry out a tragedy. Their last major effort came after 20 children and 6 adults were killed by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago.
Even then, a bipartisan measure from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania to expand background checks failed.
Democrats took advantage of the special rules of debate to push for votes on gun-related measures Republicans probably would not have allowed.
“The entire country will know where every member of the Senate stands on tightening background checks, on keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists, and on strengthening and improving mental health in this country,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. “The scourge of gun violence that has swept through this country in recent years has snuffed out thousands upon thousands of lives. It’s an epidemic that must be dealt with head on and that means keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have guns.”
Democrats brought up the Manchin-Toomey measure, a proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that would prevent people on the terror watch list from buying guns, and a third amendment to strengthen mental health and substance abuse treatment all failed. Each was blocked from getting 60 votes to advance. Republicans offered alternatives to each and they were blocked as well.
Three Republicans besides Toomey voted for the expanded background check legislation. They were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen Mark Kirk of Illinois and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Each is up for re-election in a competitive state. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted against the amendment.
The other amendments fell on party lines.
Some of the moderate Republicans up for re-election already tried to thread the needle on the budget during the Planned Parenthood debate. Collins, Kirk, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska offered an amendment that would have stripped the defunding language, but it was defeated.
Kirk and Collins were the only Republicans to vote against the final bill.
One bit of drama on the final vote was whether GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida would support the bill. They had complained the Obamacare repeal was not deep enough but Senate GOP leaders made changes to satisfy them and were confident they would back the bill, especially because pro-life groups adamantly support defunding Planned Parenthood and the candidates are courting those pro-life voters.
In the end, they both voted for the bill.
The debate included a wide variety of issues including a proposal from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a GOP presidential candidate, to curb Syrian refugees from coming into the U.S. but his measure failed to get 60 votes.
The bill, which was approved on a 52-47 vote, now goes back to the House, which is expected to adopt it and send it to the President for his veto.