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By Dana Tims May 23, 2014

Was Jeff Merkley the deciding vote on Obamacare?

The race for a U.S. Senate seat representing Oregon is shaping up to be one of the most-watched political contests of the 2014 election. The race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican Monica Wehby could well play a pivotal role in whether Democrats maintain their Senate majority.

The lead-up to the May 20, 2014, primary proved rockier than expected for Wehby, a political newcomer and pediatric neurosurgeon, when police reports surfaced detailing domestic incidents involving her former husband and an ex-boyfriend.

The claim:

The day after the primary, Wehby’s campaign put out a news release that appeared aimed at turning the conversation back to the topic she had focused on for weeks -- health care.

"Jeff Merkley was the deciding vote on Obamacare," the release stated, "which in Oregon has been an unmitigated disaster."

This is hardly the first time a politician has been accused of casting the pivotal vote for the controversial Affordable Care Act. Even so, we thought we’d check to see whether circumstances surrounding Merkley’s vote differ from those of his Democratic colleagues.

The analysis:

PolitiFact National has checked a slew of claims that different Democratic senators were "the deciding vote." Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s former attorney general and candidate for governor, said in November 2013, for instance, that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., cast the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act.

In Florida, an ad made the claim about U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, while others repeated the assertions about Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats from Colorado. Checks in those cases found that none of the senators cast the "deciding" vote.

A little history: The first Senate vote relevant to the issue occurred on Dec. 23, 2009. It was needed to overcome a filibuster and end debate on the bill, to bring it to a vote for final approval. Senate rules require 60 senators to approve such a motion.

The vote to defeat the filibuster came in on the number, with Merkley voting with the rest of his party. But his vote was no more vital than any other, especially since his support was not in doubt.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., by contrast, did need late arm-twisting, agreeing to back the bill only after 13 hours of negotiations, according to news reports at the time. His was the critical 60th vote.

Votes on two other bills were needed for the ACA to win final approval. The first, which passed the original version of the Affordable Care Act, needed only a simple majority, making its passage easier. The next was a vote taken March 25, 2010, that officially approved the bill after it had been passed by the House. Merkley joined 56 other senators, making it impossible to say whether his was the vote that sent the ACA to Obama’s desk for signing.

We asked Wehby’s campaign to defend the claim. In an email, campaign manager Charlie Pearce replied, "Thanks to Jeff Merkley’s yes vote on Obamacare, 150,000 Oregonians had their health insurance plans canceled. If Jeff Merkley would have had the courage to vote no on that bill, Obamacare would not have passed, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars would not have been wasted on the fiasco that was Cover Oregon."    

The ruling:

Wehby’s campaign, fresh off her win in the GOP Senate primary, sent out a news release pinning responsibility for passage of the Affordable Care Act on her Democratic opponent. "Jeff Merkley was the deciding vote on Obamacare," it said, "which in Oregon has been an unmitigated disaster."

The assertion is just the latest to identify a particular Democratic senator as having cast the "deciding" vote for Obamacare. Similar checks have all found the claim to be either Mostly False or False.

Wehby’s campaign, asked to defend the claim, sent an email that omitted any mention of Merkley’s "deciding" vote. Her assertion that Merkley’s vote resulted in 150,000 Oregonians having their health care plans canceled is a check we’ll leave for another day.

Merkley did join his Democratic colleagues in voting for the bill, but it was a senator from Nebraska who provided the needed 60th vote. We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Email from Sen. Jeff Merkley’s campaign, May 22, 2014.

Email from Monica Wehby’s campaign, May 23, 2014.

U.S. Senate, roll call vote on the motion to invoke cloture on H.R. 3590 (health care bill), Dec. 23, 2009.

U.S. Senate, roll call vote on passage of H.R. 3590 (health care bill), Dec. 24, 2009.

U.S. Senate, roll call vote on passage of H.R. 4872 (health care bill), March 25, 2010.

PolitiFact, "‘The Deciding Vote? All 60 of them’," June 14, 2012.

PolitiFact Ohio, "Josh Mandel says Sherrod Brown cast the deciding vote for government takeover of health care," May 30, 2012.

PolitiFact New Hampshire, "Jim Rubens claims U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, was the deciding vote to pass Obamacare," Nov. 19, 2013.

PolitiFact Florida, "Was Florida’s Bill Nelson ‘the deciding vote’ on health care law'?" June 14, 2012.

PolitiFact, "Cuccinelli says Warner cast ‘the tiebreaking vote’ on Obamacare," Nov. 18, 2013.

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