- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 8, 2009

UPDATED:

The Democrat-led House late Saturday passed landmark legislation that would fulfill President Obama’s call to dramatically reshape the country’s health care system, passing it with just one Republican vote and establishing a new abortion ban that promises to further complicate the reform debate.

With the help of a last-minute pitch from President Obama, Democratic leaders overcame a late abortion fight and cobbled together 220 votes to pass health care reform, which many other Congresses have tried, but none has accomplished.

Related TWT article: Obama: It’s the Senate’s turn on health care

Along the way a bipartisan group of lawmakers who oppose abortion rights successfully included a ban on federally funded abortions in the government-run plan and some private insurance plans. Supporters of abortion rights called it a dramatic assault on an existing practice, promising to stir interest groups and further inflame the reform debate in the coming weeks.



Democrats in the House chamber cheered as the vote tally hit 218, the threshold for final passage of the reform bill, shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday. Cheers filled the chamber again as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced, “The bill is passed,” and brought the gavel down.

“America and the American people are what this was about. This is not about us,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “This is about people, not parties. This was about every American having access to quality, affordable health care.”

The final tally was 220-215. The sole Republican “yes” vote came from Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana.

“That equals bipartisan,” Mrs. Pelosi said with a laugh.

The Democrats’ two-vote cushion included lawmakers who won special elections this week in New York and California.

The 10-year, $1.2 trillion bill would establish a government-run public insurance plan, require nearly all employers to provide insurance, institute insurance industry reforms and distribute tax credits to help poor and middle class families buy insurance. It would cover 36 million of the nation’s uninsured population.

The legislation would be paid for with cuts to the Medicare program, which Democrats said would eliminate waste and fraud, and new taxes on individuals with incomes more than $500,000 or couples making more than $1 million.

Republicans opposed the legislation, arguing that the Medicare cuts would hurt seniors and that the public insurance plan would put the government in the middle of the patient-doctor relationship.

“The American people have spoken, and they’ve made it perfectly clear that the health care bill that’s on the floor today, they want no part of,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Saturday morning. “We’re going to do everything we can to try to stop this from becoming law and urge the Speaker to work with us in a bipartisan way to enact common sense, step-by-step reform to make health insurance more affordable for more Americans.”

The House rejected an alternative Republican health care plan in a nearly party-line 258-176 vote. The Republican proposal had no tax increases and would have lowered insurance premiums by creating high-risk insurance pools, allowing workers to buy health insurance across state lines and rewriting medical malpractice law.

Democrats criticized the plan for extending coverage to just 3 million more Americans by 2019, leaving most of the roughly 46 million people currently uninsured still without coverage.

The focus of the debate now shifts to the Senate, where the Democrats’ majority is slimmer and passage could be more difficult. The version that ultimately goes to Mr. Obama’s desk is expected to more closely mirror what the Senate produces.

Mr. Obama, in a rare Capitol Hill visit Saturday, urged Democrats to pass the bill, arguing not to get sidetracked by political problems but to enact what he called historic policy.

Mr. Obama spent five minutes talking about the shooting this week at the Fort Hood military base, in which 12 people were killed, reminding Democrats of “what real sacrifice is,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat, who attended the meeting.

“I think in a very moving way he reminded us what sacrifice really is,” he said. “Sacrifice is not casting a vote that might lose an election for you. It is the sacrifice that someone makes when they were the uniform of this country and unfortunately a number of people made this week.”

Mr. Andrews said the comments were respectful and not viewed as politicizing the shooting. The president urged Democrats to consider the historic nature of extending access to health care to all Americans.

“I’m absolutely confident we will get this done, and when I’m in the Rose Garden signing a piece of legislation to give health care to all Americans, we’ll look back and say this was our finest moment,” one Democratic aide quoted the president as saying.

Democrats struggled in recent days to round up the votes required for passage over concern about illegal immigration and costs. But it was abortion that nearly derailed the legislation.

Democratic lawmakers who oppose abortion rights, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, won the right to vote on the amendment in exchange for not killing the legislation in a procedural vote. Lawmakers in the negotiations said Mrs. Pelosi was furious and frustrated that she had to allow the amendment.

Liberal Democrats who support abortion rights grudgingly accepted it as a tough compromise necessary to pass the bill. The amendment passed 240-194, with support from 64 Democrats and all of the 176 Republicans.

Democrats who support abortion rights said they opposed the amendment, but voted for the bill to move the process forward, hoping that the ban would be removed when the House and Senate bills are combined.

“We’re here because we have the opportunity, the privilege really, to get health care to all Americans and because we have the opportunity to fine-tune the bill in conference. I think that will address some of the concerns about voting for a final bill,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat.

Mr. Boehner said on the floor that he worried that Democratic leaders weren’t committed to keeping the ban in the bill once it was combined with the Senate version.

Much of the debate Saturday turned passionately partisan, underlying the division that marks the health care debate.

“If we fail to act on health care, if we fail to do what we must do, history will not be kind to any of us,” said Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil rights leader, in an enthusiastic speech on the House floor.

Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican, brought the infant daughter of his chief of staff to the House floor to argue that the Democrats’ bill would impose too heavy a burden on future generations.

“Maddie says, ‘Don’t tax me for health care that you guys want. If you want health care, pay for it yourselves,’” Mr. Shadegg said.

During the debate, about 1,500 demonstrators gathered outside the Capitol to protest the bill. Some waved American flags, and others displayed golden “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake flags. A copy of the nearly 2,000-page bill taped end to end stretched from the Capitol, down the steps and across the Southeast Lawn.

Richard Baumgartner, 73, who breathed with the aid of a portable oxygen tank and walked with a cane, was among three busloads of people from Western Maryland at the demonstration.

“If Obama-care goes through, I’d be one of them they’d have the death squad for because of my age and my physical condition,” said Mr. Baumgartner, who receives Veterans Affairs health benefits. “This [bill] has something to do with taking away all our freedoms. It’s not just health care.”

Mr. Baumgartner’s remarks echoed a speech Friday by Sarah Palin, who told a pro-life rally near Milwaukee that the liberal mind-set for abortion rights could lead to euthanasia under a government-run health care system.

“What may they feel about an elderly person who doesn’t have a whole lot of productive years left?” said Mrs. Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. “In order to save government money, government health care has to be rationed. Do you think our elderly will be first in line for limited health care?”

Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and longest-serving member of the House, presided over some of the debate in the Saturday session. He last presided over the House in 1965 when the chamber passed legislation to establish the Medicare program.

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