Congress passes Obama's health care bill
Barack Obama has convinced Democrats in the US Congress to pass his historic health care reform bill, handing the president a victory that will give nearly every American the right to health coverage and could define his time in office.
“We proved we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling big challenges,” said Mr Obama. Reprising his campaign mantra he added: “This is what change looks like, tonight we answered the call of history.”
His victory came by a narrow margin of 219 to 212, with all Republicans and 34 Democrats opposing. But it secured the most sweeping domestic reform since the 1960s that a few weeks ago seemed dead and buried when the Democrats lost a crucial Senate by-election in Massachusetts.
Though the president will sign last night’s bill into law, the process will not end until later in the week, when Democrats in the Senate are expected to complete a complex set of manoeuvres that will create a compromise bill.
The president therefore avoided a victory lap in comments made from the East Room of the White House shortly before midnight in Washington, though privately White House advisers said this was “a wonderful, wonderful night” and some could not contain their smiles as the president made his short, televised address.
As hundreds of angry protesters outside the Capitol chanted “Kill the Bill”, Democrats were able to muster the votes they needed after the president reached a last minute compromise with anti-abortion congressmen.
He agreed to issue an executive order as soon as the bill was passed that would prevent any circumvention of the existing ban on federal funding of elective abortions, which a small group of Catholic Democrats said was threatened by the language of the bill.
“This bill is complicated, but it’s also very simple: illness and infirmity are universal, and we are stronger against them together than we are alone,” said Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House Majority Leader before the vote.
“This trillion-dollar overhaul will take the America we know and love in the wrong direction,” said Representative Eric Cantor, the number two House Republican.
Together, the Senate bill and package of changes would remake US health care a century after then-president Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, called for a national approach, extending coverage to some 32 million Americans who currently lack it.
The cost at $940 billion over ten years is huge, but the bill is forecast to save $1.3 trillion over the next 20 years.
It would ban insurance company practices like denying care for pre-existing conditions, imposing lifetime caps on coverage, while providing subsidies to buy private insurance in newly-created marketplaces called “exchanges”.
Republican Paul Ryan levelled angry charges that the legislation would crush the free market in the heavy hand of government while raising taxes and creating a slew of inefficient agencies.
“This bill is a fiscal Frankenstein,” he said. “It’s not too late to get it right, let’s start over, let’s defeat this bill.”
Republicans also vowed to keep up the fight in the Senate - the next battleground - and to repeal the broadly unpopular bill if they win back majorities in November’s midterms elections.