Democratic-controlled House passes Obama's historic health care reform bill with 219-212 voteBY KENNETH R. BAZINET AND MICHAEL MCAULIFF
March 22, 2010
WASHINGTON - It's not just change to believe in - it's change that's real after the U.S. House of Representatives voted Sunday night for a sweeping overhaul of American health care.
Making the nation's medical system work better and cover Americans was the signature issue of President Obama's campaign. In his second year, he has now won a historic reform that some rank with such milestone achievements as civil rights acts and the creation of Social Security.
Democrats roared in delight as the bill squeaked through 219 to 212, almost four months after it had passed the Senate. Republicans were unanimously opposed, joined by 34 Democrats. A second vote on fixes to the Senate bill demanded by House Democrats passed 220 to 211.
The health care push has been as divisive for Obama as the Iraq war was for President George W. Bush. Angry mobs disrupted town hall meetings around the nation last summer, and even last night, protesters swarmed Capitol Hill, chanting, "Kill the bill!"
Republicans to the end called it a big-spending folly that would send the nation's health care into decline.
"Shame on each and every one of you who substitutes your will for the will of your countrymen," House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) thundered.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded by invoking the Declaration of Independence: "This legislation will lead to healthier lives, more liberty to pursue hopes and dreams and happiness for the American people. This is an American proposal that honors the traditions of our country."
The $940 billion bill marks the greatest overhaul of how Americans get medical care in two generations. The changes are not as radical as some liberals wanted, but they are profound.
Starting in six months, people with pre-existing conditions will have access to insurance. Kids can stay on parents' plans until age 27. Retroactive cancellations of policies will be illegal. And seniors on Medicare won't face a prescription drug "doughnut hole."
Over the next four years, new exchanges will be created through which individuals and small businesses will be able to buy insurance at group rates, and there will be subsidies and tax breaks to help.
And Americans who can afford it will be required to buy insurance, with 32 million more of us - 95% of the nation - forecast to be covered by better plans by the end of the decade.
"I can report that this has been one of the most historic moments of my life," said Harlem Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, noting he renounced his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship amid an ethics scandal in part to ensure the bill passed. "Thank God I'm on the right side."
"I'm proud to be a member of Congress, but never as proud as I am tonight," said Bronx Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel.
High tensions and ugly tirades
The final push for the vote came amid overflowing emotions. Outside the Capitol, the protests by thousands of anti-reform Tea Party activists sometimes turned ugly, launching racist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic rants at members of Congress.
Tensions behind the scenes also were high, with a dispute over abortion leaving the outcome in doubt until the afternoon.
Conservative Democrats led by Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak withheld their votes until the President promised to write an order decreeing that federal money would not be used for the procedure.
Democrats had been increasingly confident, but Stupak's decision sealed the deal.
Later, as Stupak spoke on the House floor, someone shouted, "Baby killer!"
Embittered Republicans were vowing to undo the measure. They argue "ObamaCare" is a government takeover of health care and Democrats are ramming reform down the throats of Americans,
"This isn't the President's house, this isn't the Democrats' house, this is the people's house, and the American people don't want a government takeover of health care," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).
"It's bound to lead to government control of medicine and health care," said Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.). "This is going to totally revamp and cripple the greatest health care system in the world."
The work on health care is not done. New Yorkers need a reconciliation package passed by the Senate, or the state and city will face billions in extra costs.
Other large states are in the same boat - a fact that nearly killed reform. The Senate passed the flawed bill in a dramatic Christmas Eve vote, figuring disputes with states could be fixed later.
But then Republican Scott Brown stunned the nation in January by winning his Massachusetts Senate seat - and taking away the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.
Many legislators wrote health reform's obituary. But it lived, and most Washington insiders credit Pelosi with insisting Congress go forward, even as others wanted to drop it, forget it and focus on the economy.
Pelosi won out, and Obama went on the offensive, holding a slew of town hall meetings, mobilizing the Democratic base.
"Every President since Teddy Roosevelt has wanted to pass health reform," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan). "It's a wonderful achievement."