Democrats command votes to pass historic health bill

Washington — The Associated Press Sunday, Mar. 21, 2010

Democratic leaders secured the last votes needed for passage of a landmark bill to overhaul the U.S. health-care system as the House met in a rare Sunday session expected to give U.S. President Barack Obama one of the most significant legislative triumphs in decades.

The House of Representatives convened for a series of votes on legislation that will provide health coverage to millions of Americans who currently are uninsured. Mr. Obama has made health reform the defining issues of his first year in office, setting off a tumultuous debate that has left the country deeply divided.

While national health care has long been a goal of presidents stretching back decades, it has proved elusive, in part because self-reliance and suspicion of a strong central government remain strong in the U.S.

Passage of the legislation was all but assured after Mr. Obama and Democratic House leaders resolved a long-standing dispute over abortion Sunday, securing crucial support from a handful of lawmakers.

The White House announced that Mr. Obama would issue an executive order after passage of the health-care bill that reaffirms current law barring taxpayer dollars for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother.

Moments after the White House statement, Rep. Bart Stupak, a leading abortion foe, and six other anti-abortion Democrats announced they would back the health bill.

“We’re well past 216,” Mr. Stupak told reporters, referring to the number of votes needed to assure passage.

Earlier in the day, in a show of confidence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from the final Democratic caucus before the historic vote wielding a large gavel and leading Democrats across the street to the Capitol for the final series of tallies. Supporters cheered them as they entered the Capitol.

“We are doing this for the American people,” Ms. Pelosi said.

A protester disagreed and yelled back, “You’re doing this to the American people!” Others shouted, “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” Inside the House chamber, a protester in the visitors gallery hollered, “The people don’t want this!” As ushers tried to escort him out, several Republicans stood up on the House floor and cheered.

At the White House, Mr. Obama, who cancelled a trip to Asia to be on hand for the vote, surprised his senior staff by showing up at a meeting. He was making and taking calls with lawmakers as the House met.

The sweeping legislation, affecting virtually every American and impacting one-sixth of the U.S. economy, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions, and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138-billion over a decade. Congressional analysts estimate the cost would be $940-billion over a decade.

Before Mr. Stupak’s announcement, House Democratic leaders were cautious but optimistic that they’d get the votes needed for passage.

“We think there are going to be 216-plus votes when we call the roll,” House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told NBC television’s Meet the Press.

Mark Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrator Don Creek of Greencove, Florida, protests U.S. President Barack Obama’s health bill in Washington on Sunday.

Republicans remain resolutely opposed to the legislation and warned they will make Democrats pay dearly in the fall elections when control of Congress is at stake if the fiercely debated measure becomes law. Republicans said they would push to repeal the bill, contending the plan amounts to a government takeover of health care that will lead to higher deficits and taxes.

“The American people don’t want this to pass. The Republicans don’t want this to pass. There will be no Republican votes for this bill,” Rep. Eric Cantor, the House’s second-ranking Republican, told ABC.

A few hundred protesters carrying signs opposing the health care overhaul crowded a grassy area near the House side of the Capitol. One sign read, “Obamacare (equals) death warrant for grandma.”

With Mr. Obama’s emotional appeal to the House Democratic caucus Saturday ringing in their ears, House Democrats prepared for three showdown votes Sunday: on a “rule” to establish debate guidelines; on a package of changes to a Senate-passed health bill, and on the Senate bill itself, the focus of intense national debate for months.

Democrats need 216 votes to pass each one. With all 178 Republicans and at least two dozen Democrats vowing to vote no, Democratic leaders needed to line up the support of a handful of caucus members who still remained uncommitted ahead of Sunday’s vote.

If Democratic leaders prevail on all three House votes, Mr. Obama could sign the Senate version of the bill into law. The bill of “fixes” would go to the Senate, which hopes to pass it within the week under a procedure called reconciliation that requires only 50 votes in the 100-member body.

The United States is alone among developed nations in not offering its citizens comprehensive health care, with nearly 50 million Americans uninsured.

Although the bill before Congress does not provide universal health care, it should expand coverage to about 95 per cent of Americans. It would require most Americans to carry insurance with subsidies for those who can’t afford it, expand the government-run Medicaid program for the poor, and create new marketplaces where self-employed people and small businesses can pool together to buy health care.

The measure represents the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in 1965 during president Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to provide government-funded health-care coverage to the elderly and poor.

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