- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

To raucous cheers at the White House but an uncertain reaction beyond the Beltway, President Obama on Tuesday signed into law the broadest change to health policy in the country’s history by requiring all Americans to have health insurance.

The law is expected to extend health coverage to tens of millions of Americans either under Medicaid or private insurance when it’s fully phased in later this decade, and it will be paid for through a mix of higher taxes and fees and cuts to existing programs.

“Today, after almost a century of trying, today, after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance becomes law in the United States of America,” Mr. Obama said.

It was a triumphant morning as lawmakers gathered in the East Room congratulated each other for doing what their predecessors had failed to do. Many of the ecstatic Democrats arrived with their cameras to capture the historic ceremony.

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“History is made when a leader steps up, stays true to his values and charts a fundamentally different course for the country. History is made when a leader’s passion is matched with principle to set a new course,” Vice President Joe Biden said. “Mr. President, you are that leader.”

The president later traveled several blocks to the Interior Department headquarters where he personally thanked staffers and other supports, then continued selling his plan to Americans.

“Thank you on behalf of the American people,” Mr. Obama told staffers, many of whom, the president said, he feared would quit after months for tireless effort. “”You met fear with a force that is a lot more powerful. You met it with faith. This victory is not not mine, it’s your victory, a victory for the United States of America.”

To those who predicted the president’s overhaul plan would soon result to an Armageddon, end-of-the-world scenario, he said, “Two months from now, six months from now, you can look around, check it out and we’ll see.”

The bill Mr. Obama signed is flawed, all sides acknowledge. The House has already passed a package of changes. And now that Mr. Obama has signed the original bill, the Senate will take up those fixes.

But the heaviest lifting is done, and Mr. Obama basked in the glory of that accomplishment.

Sprinkled in the audience among congressional leaders and rank-and-file Democrats were the widow of former Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his niece Caroline Kennedy, along with his son, retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.

The entrance of Rep. John D. Dingell, the longest-serving House member of history, drew a standing ovation. The Michigan Democrat has introduced a universal health-care bill every year since the 1950s.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also received standing ovations, with Mr. Obama calling Mrs. Pelosi one of the greatest speakers in history.

The president invited several guests to the ceremony, including the sister of Natoma Canfield, an Ohio woman sick with leukemia whose story he has shared in recent weeks.

Mr. Obama thanked lawmakers for enduring months of political wrangling and fierce protests by critics of the bill. Its passage, he said, is “a testament to the historic leadership and uncommon courage of the men and women of the United States Congress, who have taken their lumps during this difficult debate.”

That line prompted one lawmaker in the audience to shout, “Yes we did.”

Republicans said voting in support of the legislation will haunt Democrats for years to come.

Republicans are already trying to repeal the law and vowing to take the issue to voters in congressional elections this November. They also have vowed to file challenges questioning whether it’s legal to mandate that all individuals obtain insurance.

“This is a somber day for the American people,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “By signing this bill, President Obama is abandoning our founding principle that government governs best when it governs closest to the people. Americans have never felt more disconnected from their government than they do today.”

Opinion polls have consistently shown a plurality if not majority opposed to the measure, but Democrats are counting on that to change as Americans discover the benefits of the new law, though many are not slated to take effect until 2014.

Mr. Obama began to try to rehabilitate the law’s image on Tuesday, pointing to some of its immediate benefits. Those include tax credits to small businesses to encourage them to offer their employees health insurance and new rules that prevent insurance companies from kicking folks off coverage for exceeding lifetime caps and that let parents keep young adult children on their plans.

On Thursday, he is hitting the road for Iowa City, where he will again focus on those aspects that do take effect this year.

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who withheld his support until the eleventh hour in exchange for an executive order reiterating a ban on federal funding for abortion, was also in the crowd Tuesday.

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