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Senate healthcare reform vote: 'Now, the real debate can begin'

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The last Democrat to publicly agree to vote to begin debate on the bill, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas, announced her decision on the floor of the Senate with a significant caveat:

“I am opposed to a new government administered public healthcare plan as a part of comprehensive health care reform, and I will not vote in favor of the proposal that has been introduced by leader Reid as it is written.”

If Saturday's vote is the model of how Democrats can get to 60 votes on healthcare reform – avoiding a filibuster – then Reid will need Senator Lincoln. Yet on the left wing of the Democratic caucus, some liberals went on record saying their vote is in doubt if the public option is weakened during debate.

“While I voted to proceed to the health care legislation tonight, I have made it clear to the administration and Democratic leadership that my vote for the final bill is by no means guaranteed,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont, in a statement after the vote.

To rally all 60 members of the Democratic caucus for the first key procedural vote on this legislation Saturday was an epic challenge for Reid, who faces his own tough reelection race next year. In addition to disputes over the public option, the majority leader had to work through deep divisions in his caucus over restrictions on abortion, access for undocumented workers, the scope of mandates on individuals and small businesses, and how to rein in the cost of healthcare.

Advocacy groups have already spent a record $170 million on both sides of healthcare debate. Opponents of the Senate bill say they will go after divisions in Democratic ranks.

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