WASHINGTON – Summoned to success by President Barack Obama, the Democrat-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage.
“This is what change looks like,” Obama said.
Widely viewed as dead two months ago, the Senate-passed bill cleared the House on a 219-212 vote. Republicans were unanimous in opposition, joined by 34 dissident Democrats.
A second, smaller measure making changes in the first cleared the House shortly before midnight and was sent to the Senate, where Democratic leaders said they had the votes necessary to pass it quickly. The vote was 220-211.
Far beyond the political ramifications – a concern the president repeatedly insisted he paid no mind – were the sweeping changes the bill held in store for nearly every American, insured or not, as well as the insurance industry and health care providers that face either smaller than anticipated payments from Medicare or higher taxes.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation awaiting the president’s approval would extend coverage to 32 million Americans who lack it, ban insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and cut deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade. If realized, the expansion of coverage would include 95 percent of all eligible individuals under age 65.
Most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.
For the president, the events capped an 18-day stretch in which he traveled to four states and lobbied more than 60 wavering lawmakers in person or by phone to secure passage of his signature domestic issue.
According to some who met with him, he warned that the bill’s demise could cripple his still-young presidency, and his aides hoped to use the victory on health care as a springboard to success on bills to tackle stubbornly high unemployment that threatens Democratic prospects in the fall.
Obama watched the vote in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with Vice President Joe Biden and dozens of aides, exchanged high fives with Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and then telephoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi with congratulations.
“We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things,” he said later in the White House East Room. “We proved that this government – a government of the people and by the people – still works for the people.
Crowds of protesters outside the Capitol shouted “just vote no” in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable taking place inside a House packed with lawmakers and ringed with spectators in the galleries above.
Across hours of debate, House Democrats predicted the larger of the two bills, costing $940 billion over a decade, would rank with other great social legislation of recent decades.
“We will be joining those who established Social Security, Medicare and now, tonight, health care for all Americans, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, partner to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the grueling campaign to pass the legislation.
“This is the civil rights act of the 21st century,” added Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the top-ranking black member of the House.
Republicans readily agreed the bill would affect everyone in America, but warned repeatedly of the burden imposed by more than $900 billion in tax increases and Medicare cuts combined.
“We have failed to listen to America,” said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, leader of a party that has vowed to carry the fight into the fall’s midterm elections for control of Congress.
The final obstacle to the bill’s passage was cleared at midafternoon when Obama and Democratic leaders reached a compromise with anti-abortion lawmakers whose rebellion had left the outcome in doubt. The White House announced it would issue an executive order pledging that no federal funds would be used for elective abortion, satisfying Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and a handful of like-minded lawmakers.
A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed skepticism that the presidential order would satisfy the church’s objections.
Republican abortion foes also said Obama’s proposed order was insufficient, and when Stupak sought to counter them, a shout of “baby killer” could be heard coming from the Republican side of the chamber.