WASHINGTON – Barack Obama has achieved what’s proven impossible for so many U.S. presidents before him – he’s ensured millions of uninsured Americans will soon get health care following a monumental vote that will undoubtedly define his presidency.
Obama’s US$940 billion legislation was finally passed by the House of Representatives on Sunday night after a divisive year-long national debate that continued to rage unabated outside the ornate Capitol building all weekend, where angry protesters assailed the bill as lawmakers prepared to vote.
“This is what change looks like,” Obama said during White House remarks just before midnight Sunday. “Tonight, when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics … we proved we are still a people capable of doing big things.”
The bill will provide millions of Americans with something Canadians have long taken for granted – health insurance, and the peace of mind that a life-threatening illness will not result in financial ruin. The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not provide some form of government health insurance to its citizens, and an estimated 50 million Americans lack any coverage at all.
“In the end, what this day represents is another stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream,” Obama said.
But to the bitter end, it was a powderkeg on the House floor as Republicans made a last-ditch effort to stop the bill in a moment of political drama that featured someone calling a congressional Democrat a “baby-killer.”
Tom Stupak is an anti-abortion congressman from Ohio who had previously vowed to vote against the bill. Obama’s pledge Sunday to issue an executive order to ensure there’s no federal funding for abortion in the bill brought Stupak and other pro-life Democrats onside, giving the party enough votes to pass it – 219-212.
The vitriol directed at Stupak echoes the type of invective spewed by some protesters this weekend on Capitol Hill. Black legislators say they were called the N-word as they entered the Capitol building, while Democrat congressman Barney Frank said he was called a “faggot.”
House leaders from both parties, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, condemned the racial taunts.
“It’s certainly not a reflection of the movement or the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things,” said Michael Steele, the black chairman of the Republican National Committee.
For decades, various U.S. presidents have attempted to enact health-care reform legislation, but legendary suspicion by Americans of big government and fears that subsidized health care amounts to socialism have long served to put the brakes to those initiatives. Only Lyndon B. Johnson achieved a health-care victory by enacting Medicare for senior citizens.
Obama’s health-care reform, dubbed Obamacare, is indeed the most ambitious U.S. social program since Johnson’s Great Society reforms of the tumultuous 1960s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, legislation that emerged from the trauma of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Obama made a weekend appeal to Democrats still on the fence about the legislation to give the green light to “the single most important step that we have taken on health care since Medicare” was created in 1965.
A president who was previously unsuccessful in overhauling the nation’s troubled health-care system – Bill Clinton – made calls over the weekend to urge waffling Democrats to throw their support behind it.
Republican leaders, meantime, vowed to repeal the legislation in the event they recapture control of Congress in the mid-term elections in November. They have assailed Obama’s health-care overhaul for a year, with one describing it as the president’s “Waterloo,” and warned the Democrats will pay the ultimate price in eight months for pushing through the legislation.
Obama could sign the Senate version of the bill into law in the days to come. Another bill of tweaks to the primary health-care package will go to the Senate, and likely be passed in the next week under a complex congressional procedure known as reconciliation that requires only 50 votes in the 100-member Senate.
Such parliamentary manoeuvres became necessary when a Republican recently won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. That gave Republicans the ability to stop the legislation dead in its tracks with a filibuster.
But Democrats were confident they could win the votes in the House on Sunday, dropping plans for another controversial parliamentary tactic called “deem and pass.” Instead, they opted to go for a simple yes-or-no vote on the bill.