Health bill passage appears certain

WASHINGTON — It may be the only bipartisan agreement that Congress reaches this year on overhauling health care.

Republicans, under pressure not to wreck Christmas for lawmakers and their staffs, agreed Tuesday that Senate passage of the Democrats’ controversial bill seemed inevitable and scaled back procedural-delay mechanisms to allow a vote by the morning of Christmas Eve.

Had the full debate continued, the Senate would have voted at around 9 p.m. Thursday, too late for many lawmakers and their staff members to get home in time for the holiday. Instead, the vote is set for 8 a.m.

President Barack Obama had announced that he would delay his own departure for his family vacation in Hawaii until the vote was over.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that he had been willing to stay late into Christmas Eve because, “It’s important that we take the time to analyze it in every way that we can before the final votes are taken in the Senate.”

However, Democrats as well as Republicans expressed concern about missing Christmas — since many live in places where planes can’t get them home in time — and others were concerned about an ice storm that’s threatening the Midwest.

McConnell also said, “The final vote in the Senate is not the final vote. There are substantial differences between the House and Senate bills. This debate is not over.”

If the Senate’s version passes as expected, it will be considered by a House of Representatives-Senate conference, or negotiating, committee, which typically operates largely in secrecy.

“The American people are still going to have another month or so, I would guess, to weigh in and express their concerns about this package to each of their representatives,” McConnell said.

Democrats hope to have a bill on Obama’s desk by the time he delivers his State of the Union address, probably in late January. The president and his aides already have begun talking about the speech.

That deadline could be hard to meet, though. The House, which adjourned last week, isn’t due to return until Jan 12, and the Senate isn’t expected to reconvene until Jan. 19.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that despite the remaining hurdles, the president and his team now expected that nothing would interfere with final passage of an overhaul that Obama would sign into law next year.

“I don’t think this is a matter of if, I think this is now a matter of when,” Gibbs said.

While the president vacations in Hawaii through the New Year’s weekend, he’ll stay abreast of developments, Gibbs said, and, “If there are updates regarding and surrounding health care ... he’s obviously always available.”

Obama also will get daily intelligence and security updates while he’s on vacation.