This was ostensibly a vote on a motion to table (kill) an amendment by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) requiring the Secretary of Education to certify that no state would experience a net job loss as a result of students receiving loans directly from the federal government. The measure Thune 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 companion bill also contained a major provision -- unrelated to health care -- that would phase out a program in which the federal government guaranteed loans made to students by private lenders. Under the bill, students would instead receive loans directly from the federal government.
Thune urged support for his amendment: "Under this bill [the companion bill], students in this country would have one option to get a student loan--the Federal Government. Today, there are 2,000 lenders across this country that make student loans….There are 30,000 to 35,000 jobs in this country that are associated with the student loan program. At a time of record-high unemployment levels, we need to ensure that moving student lending to the Department of Education does not place more Americans on unemployment. As our economy recovers, we should be focused on ways to increase jobs in the private sector, not ending those positions in favor of adding more government bureaucrats in Washington."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) made a motion to table (kill) the amendment, arguing it was simply intended to kill the companion bill: "This amendment is not about protecting jobs. It is about killing the bill and leaving the subsidies to the big banks, where they are today."
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 tabled "killed" the amendment by a vote of 55-43. 55 Democrats voted "yea." All 40 Republicans present and 3 Democrats voted "nay." As a result, the Senate rejected an amendment Democratic leaders feared could have torpedoed the companion health care bill and would have required the Secretary of Education to certify that no state would experience a net job loss as a result of students receiving loans directly from the federal government.