From Ted Barrett, CNN
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.
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Republican leaders also want to send an unmistakable message to voters: If you elect a GOP president next year and keep the them in charge of Congress, Obamacare will go.
“It demonstrates that if you have a president prepared to support health care reform, it could pass next time,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act who insisted this was not a show vote just because the President will veto the bill. “If this vote occurred after the next presidential election, instead of vetoing it the President would sign it. This would force a bipartisan reevaluation of health care in America and put us in a position to make major changes.”
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 portions of 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 Sessions’ words, 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.”