This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to table (kill) an amendment by Sen. James Risch (R-ID) to health care legislation that would have allowed individuals to deduct a portion (up to $3,500) of their medical expenses from their taxes if their medical expenses exceed 5% of their income. The measure Risch sought to amend was a “companion bill” making a number of changes to health care reform legislation already signed into law by President Obama. The underlying context was that Republicans were trying to attach amendments to the companion bill in order to send it back the House, where it had passed by a narrow margin. CNN reported that Republicans had chosen to offer a slew of amendments in order to “undermine the measure,” while the Associated Press characterized the amendments as “a final drive to thwart President Barack Obama's health care remake.”
The health care reform legislation already signed into law by President Obama raised the threshold at which taxpayers become eligible for this deduction to 10% from 7.5%. (For example, once an individual’s medical expenses exceeded 10% of their income, that individual could deduct a portion of those expenses from their taxes. Risch’s amendment would have lowered this threshold to 5%.)
Risch urged support for his amendment: “Right now, under the bill the President signed on Monday, it raised the threshold to 10 percent from 7.5 percent at which you can deduct medical expenses. That tax falls on the most vulnerable people in America--mostly the elderly, mostly very low income. And it raises taxes on 14.7 million people who make less than $200,000 a year. The President of the United States said--he told us, he committed--he would not raise taxes on people who make less than $200,000 a year. I am sure he was just confused when he signed the bill on Monday.”
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) argued that expanding access to health insurance would result in fewer people needing a tax deduction for medical expenses: “The provision the Senator talks about, frankly, was changed under current law because with health insurance people have less need for that deduction...”
After the House and Senate both passed their respective health care reform bills, the two chambers had intended to reconcile those two bills into a final package. After the House and Senate passed that final package, it would have been sent to President Obama, who would have signed it into law. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), however, won a special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) before the final health care bill could be brought up for a vote. Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 votes in the Senate, leaving Democrats with 59 members – one vote short of the 60 votes they needed to defeat a unanimous Republican filibuster against the final health care bill.
In order to pass comprehensive health care legislation without a 60-vote majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders devised a plan in which the House would pass the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590), thereby enabling the president to sign it into law. The House would then pass a separate companion bill (H.R. 4872) to make changes to the Senate health measure under a process known as "budget reconciliation." Bills considered under budget reconciliation cannot be filibustered under Senate rules. This process allowed the House to make changes to Senate-passed health care legislation without sending the entire health bill back to the Senate, where it could have been filibustered indefinitely. The companion bill incorporated changes to the Senate health care legislation desired by House Democrats. The House passed the companion measure, and sent it to the Senate, where Democratic leaders hoped to defeat all amendments -- thereby avoiding a second vote in the House on a substantively changed bill; a vote that Democrats might have lost given the already tight margin when it was voted on the previous week.
The Senate voted to table (kill) the Risch amendment by a vote of 55-40. 55 Democrats voted “yea.” 38 Republicans and 2 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate rejected an amendment Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the entire companion health care measure and would have allowed individuals to deduct a portion of their medical expenses from their taxes if their medical expenses exceed 5% of their income.