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Kristen Daum, Published December 25 2009

Minnesota, North Dakota senators support measure

Senators from North Dakota and Minnesota were among a tight coalition of Democrats who advanced health care reform legislation during an early morning Christmas Eve vote.

As expected, North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken each supported the Senate bill, which passed 60-39.

Two independents joined the 58 Democrats in favor of the bill, while 39 Republicans opposed it. Republican Jim Bunning of Kentucky did not vote.

The legislation now goes to a House-Senate conference committee, where the Senate bill will be merged with one passed by the House. Those talks could stretch through January and perhaps into February, Democratic leaders say.

The House and Senate must vote again to approve the final piece of legislation, before it would be sent to President Barack Obama.

Each of North Dakota and Minnesota’s senators called Thursday’s vote a step forward for the legislation, but added that improvement is still needed in the next steps of the process.

“This is not a perfect piece of legislation for sure,” Dorgan said in a statement. “But voting for this legislation in the Senate moves it along … which is another step in determining whether we can write legislation that advances our country’s interests.”

The Senate’s health care bill would provide coverage to more than 30 million people and begin a far-reaching overhaul of Medicare and the private insurance market.

For the first time, most Americans would be required to obtain health insurance, either through their employer or via new government-regulated exchanges.

Those who can’t afford insurance plans would receive federal subsidies. And Medicaid would be vastly expanded to reach millions of low-income children and adults.

Although health care reform has faced much controversy, North Dakota and Minnesota’s Democratic senators stressed the need for change because of the continuing escalation of health care costs and other problems with the current system.

“Rising health care costs are unsustainable,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “Minnesotans know that we can’t simply keep pushing our problems to another day.”

Klobuchar and Franken also praised the cost-cutting measures included in the Senate’s reform bill.

“It will help bring down costs and is a significant down payment toward the goal of quality affordable health care for all Americans,” Franken said in a statement.

But across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed to wage an even tougher battle against the Democrats’ reform plans.

“This fight is not over. This fight is long from over,” McConnell said Thursday. “My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law.”

As Congress looks to resume the health care reform debate after the New Year holiday, Conrad said it will continue to be a difficult process for the nation’s lawmakers.

“It’s going to be very challenging, because the two bills are very different,” he said. “But I think it’s pretty clear that unless the bill is very close to what the Senate passed, it will not have much of chance of passing in the Senate.”

Conrad played a pivotal role in crafting the Senate’s bill as a member of the so-called “Gang of Six” during the summer.

He said Thursday he did not know if he will be a member of the conference committee or what his role will be in future negotiations of the legislation.

“I really don’t know how it’s going to be handled,” Conrad said. “I’ve not been told one way or the other.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541