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Democrats backing off Vitter humiliation vote

By Alan Silverleib, CNN Congressional Producer
updated 5:44 PM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Senate Democrats backing off votes meant to embarrass Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana
  • Votes would have highlighted Vitter's alleged past involvement with a prostitute
  • Votes were possible response to Vitter plan to strip healthcare contributions from lawmakers, aides
  • Senate may still hold vote on Vitter plan, which is considered likely to lose

Washington (CNN) -- Democrats will probably not force votes on proposals meant to shine an unusually ugly spotlight on Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter's alleged past solicitation of prostitutes, a Senate Democratic aide acknowledged to CNN Tuesday.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and other top Democrats have been considering holding the votes in response to Vitter's attempt to force a politically tough vote on whether to strip federal healthcare support from lawmakers and staff.

The Senate aide said the Democratic plan was hatched in response to years of mounting frustration with the Louisiana senator.

Among other things, Democrats have been loudly floating an alternative amendment to strip federal healthcare contributions from any lawmaker found to have likely solicited prostitutes.

They've also considered a vote on an amendment stripping federal healthcare contributions from lawmakers whose actions more generally reflect poorly on Congress, as well as an amendment cutting off healthcare subsidies from any senator who votes for Vitter's proposal.

Vitter was famously linked to the so-called "D.C. Madam" prostitution scandal in 2007. The conservative Republican admitted to committing a "very serious sin," and won a second Senate term in 2010.

As far as Democrats are concerned, Vitter was the one who first crossed a line by going after congressional staffers.

"For Senator Vitter and his Republican allies to end the contribution for 16,000 hardworking federal employees -- even after years of accepting the subsidy themselves -- is hypocritical and mean-spirited," Reid said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

"If Senator Vitter opposes the employer contribution to congressional staffers, does he oppose it also for the 150 million other Americans whose employers help pay their health insurance premiums?"

Vitter -- a fierce critic of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act -- caused an uproar on Capitol Hill when he first proposed to end federal contributions to healthcare coverage provided to lawmakers and legislative staffers.

Vitter's plan would save nearly $1 billion over the next decade, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Under Obamacare regulations crafted by the administration, legislators and staffers will continue to receive federal healthcare contributions while participating in insurance exchanges set up under the law. But Vitter says Washington politicians and staff shouldn't receive what he views as special subsidies denied to other Americans.

Democrats -- quietly joined by a number of congressional Republicans -- insist the federal government's contribution to its employees' health care is no different than the contribution provided by other large employers to millions of Americans in the private sector.

"All that we are asking is that this group of individuals be treated the same as every other American with health insurance through their employment," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat.

"My fear is that this isn't the end of Senator Vitter's crusade against health insurance by employers. I think this is the first step. The next step could be to eliminate the employers' contribution for health insurance across the board."

Vitter's plan is "a step back in time," Durbin declared.

Vitter lashed back on Twitter, writing, "So many employees will lose their employer contribution because of #Obamacare. Anyone think @SenatorReid deserves to be exempt?"

Later, Reid told reporters he may allow a vote on Vitter's proposal, which is virtually certain to be defeated.

Vitter then took to the Senate floor to praise reports of a possible resolution to the embarrassing showdown.

It "certainly sounds like the discussion at the majority (Democratic) lunch today was, let's just say, more appropriate and more productive than the discussion" last week, Vitter said.

But "what is good for America is good for Washington," he added. "The rule for America should certainly be the rule for those who have the particular honor and responsibility to help govern. And that should be the case across the board."

Last week, Vitter argued that Reid and other Democrats, by shining an uncomfortable spotlight on his past, engaged in unacceptable congressional behavior.

On Friday, he requested an ethics investigation into whether Reid, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, and their staff violated Senate rules by publicly proposing legislation which "ties members' personal healthcare benefits to their performance of specific acts and votes."

"This is attempted bribery, and the exact sort of behavior that the Senate Ethics Committee has previously condemned," Vitter wrote.

Democrats dismissed Vitter's accusation, calling it baseless.

CNN's Ted Barrett and Lisa Desjardins contributed to this report

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