WASHINGTON — Summoned to success by President Barack Obama, the Democratic-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.
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.
Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, took to the floor Sunday evening to voice his opposition to the bill. The gubernatorial candidate, who will be leaving Washington to devote his full energy to his campaign, said he was proud of his “no” vote.
“If this bill becomes law, and I am successful in my undertakings, I will devote my efforts to making sure the people of my state are not subjected to the unconstitutional individual mandate, and that my state is not subject to the unconstitutional mandate to expand our Medicaid rolls.”
After voting had ended late Sunday evening, the 9th District representative submitted his resignation on the House floor, bringing his 18-year career in Washington to a close.
Obama watched the vote in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with Vice President Joe Biden and about 40 staff aides. When the long sought 216th vote came in — the magic number needed for passage — the room burst into applause and hugs. An exultant president exchanged a high-five with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
“We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things,” the president said a short while later in televised remarks. “We proved that this government — a government of the people and by the people — still works for the people.”
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.
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.
For the first time, 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.
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 millions of individuals, the insurance companies that would come under tougher control and the health care providers, many of whom would face higher taxes.
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 passage was cleared a few hours before the vote, when Obama and Democratic leaders reached a compromise with anti-abortion lawmakers whose rebellion had left the outcome in doubt. The president issued 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.
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.
After more than a year of political combat, Democrats piled superlative upon superlative across several hours of House debate.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York read a message President Franklin Roosevelt sent Congress in 1939 urging lawmakers to address the needs of those without health care, and said Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Richard Nixon had also sought to broaden insurance coverage.
Republicans attacked the bill without let-up, warning it would harm the economy while mandating a government takeover of the health care system.
“The American people know you can’t reduce health care costs by spending $1 trillion or raising taxes by more than one-half trillion dollars. The American people know that you cannot cut Medicare by over one-half trillion dollars without hurting seniors,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
“And, the American people know that you can’t create an entirely new government entitlement program without exploding spending and the deficit.”
Obama has said often that presidents of both parties have tried without success to achieve national health insurance, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20th century.
The 44th president’s quest to succeed where others have failed seemed at a dead end two months ago, when Republicans won a special election for a Massachusetts Senate seat, and with it, the votes to prevent a final vote.
But the White House, Pelosi and Reid soon came up with a rescue plan that required the House to approve the Senate-passed measure despite opposition to many of its provisions, then have both houses pass a fix-it measure incorporating numerous changes.
To pay for the changes, the legislation includes more than $400 billion in higher taxes over a decade, roughly half of it from a new Medicare payroll tax on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and couples over $250,000. A new excise tax on high-cost insurance policies was significantly scaled back in deference to complaints from organized labor.
In addition, the bills cut more than $500 billion from planned payments to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other providers that treat Medicare patients. An estimated $200 billion would reduce planned subsidies to insurance companies that offer a private alternative to traditional Medicare.
The insurance industry warned that seniors would face sharply higher premiums as a result, and the Congressional Budget Office said many would return to traditional Medicare as a result.
The subsidies are higher than those for seniors on traditional Medicare, a difference that critics complain is wasteful, but insurance industry officials argue goes into expanded benefits.