The Senate health reform bill moved one step closer to becoming law Friday when Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) announced he would vote yes in a crucial test vote of the bill scheduled for Saturday.
The move represents a surprising turnaround for Nelson, who as recently as Thursday threatened to join the Republican filibuster of the bill if restrictions of government funding of abortion aren't tightened.
Nelson was among three Democratic holdouts in the US Senate who have not declared which way they will vote on a motion to bring the health reform bill to debate on the Senate floor. With all 40 Republican senators committed to voting against it, Democrats need the support of all 48 Democratic senators and two independents to overcome a Republican filibuster and bring the bill forward.
The two remaining uncommitted Democrats are Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. But Nelson's announcement Friday will likely put pressure on the holdouts to commit at least to a floor debate, if not to vote in favor of the bill at the end.
In his announcement, Nelson argued that even though there are parts of the bill he doesn't like, he is opposed to legislative obstructionism and therefore wants to see a debate on the bill.
“Throughout my Senate career I have consistently rejected efforts to obstruct," he said in a statement. "That's what the vote on the motion to proceed is all about. It is not for or against the new Senate health care bill released Wednesday. It is only to begin debate and an opportunity to make improvements. If you don't like a bill why block your own opportunity to amend it?"
Nelson didn't state whether his concerns about abortion in the health bill were addressed.
However, even with Nelson's vote, moving the bill forward is by no means certain. Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose support is needed, has come out strongly against the public option included in the Senate bill.
Lieberman has accused Democrats of pulling a "bait and switch" by adding the public option even though, he claims, they didn't mention one during the 2008 electoral campaign. But, as Politico notes, a public health care option of some kind was part of both Barack Obama's and the Democratic Party's platform last year.
Controversy has also erupted around Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's declaration that he would not use the reconciliation process to pass health care reform. If Democrats can't get the 60 Senate votes needed to pass the bill, they have the option of passing a watered-down bill and using the process of reconciling that bill with the already-passed House health bill to reinstate the public option. Reconciliation requires only 50 votes for passage.
One unidentified "progressive activist" told Art Levine of Truthout that "it's important for Democrats to keep reconciliation alive so we can tell conservative Democrats, 'We don't need to use you all.'''
But others argue the reconciliation option is growing less relevant as Democrats come closer to the 60-vote mark.
"We're not hearing a lot of talk about [reconciliation] lately," one source told Truthout. "My senator is confident that his colleagues don't want to be on the wrong side of history over a procedural vote."