'A new season in America' as Obama signs health bill
Published 24/03/2010 | 05:00
THE US healthcare reform bill was signed into law by President Obama yesterday in a profound, and briefly profane, White House ceremony that few imagined possible just two months ago.
The law brings immediate changes to the rules governing American health insurers and injects new urgency into Republican efforts to repeal the bill or defeat it in the courts.
Using a rack of 22 pens that will each become cherished souvenirs, Mr Obama signed a measure that ends America's long-standing distinction as the only advanced economy in the world to lack basic healthcare coverage for all.
He welcomed "a new season in America" after "a century of trying and a year of debate" and said that he looked forward to a political season when the heated rhetoric of that debate would "confront the reality of reform".
Moments earlier, after Vice President Joe Biden had introduced Mr Obama in the East Room of the White House, Mr Biden leaned in to give his boss a hug and was caught by microphone saying in the president's ear: "This is a big f***ing deal".
Yesterday a Republican contender for the presidency accused Mr Obama of betraying the nation. Mr Obama had "succumbed to the lowest denominator of incumbent power, justifying the means by extolling the ends", said Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
The bill would raise taxes and create new entitlements that the US can ill-afford, he added.
The new law's immediate effects include a ban on withholding health insurance from children on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions, and a provision for young adults to stay on their parents' policies until the age of 26. A raucous invited audience in the East Room of the White House applauded each ingredient of the bill as Mr Obama listed them, and gave standing ovations as he paid tribute to Senator Kennedy and to his own mother, who he said "argued with insurance companies even as she battled cancer". On Capitol Hill, conservative senators are attempting to derail a package of amendments to the bill, using points of order and amendments of their own. In 13 states Republican attorneys-general have announced lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the reform bill, while Mr Romney and others are campaigning to repeal it at the federal level.
Repeal efforts cannot succeed as long as Mr Obama is president, since he would be able to veto any repeal bill. Under a Republican administration a simple majority in both houses of Congress would be enough, but the history of big US welfare programmes suggests that, once granted, they quickly become too popular for politicians to retract.
The legal challenges are based on claims that under the so-called "commerce clause" of the US Constitution, government cannot force citizens to buy insurance.
In principle the Supreme Court might look kindly on such arguments, since it has a 5-4 conservative majority, but experts doubted that the court would relish the role of arbiter. "It's nothing but trouble for the courts when they gainsay big acts of the legislative branch. It would make Bush v Gore look like a Sunday afternoon picnic if the Supreme Court invalidated this healthcare bill," said Professor Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, referring to the presidential election recount of 2000.
"And they don't want to go back to that. They went through hell." (© The Times, London)