House makes history


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.

"This is what change looks like," Obama said a few moments later in televised remarks that stirred memories of his 2008 campaign promise of "change we can believe in."

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 Democrats.

The bill goes to the president, who was expected to sign it this week.

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.

Obama's presidency received a boost as a divided Congress passed legislation touching the lives of nearly every American. The battle for the future of the health insurance system, affecting one-sixth of the economy, galvanized Republicans and conservative activists looking ahead to November's midterm elections.

The bill holds sweeping changes in store for Americans, insured or not, and the insurance industry and health care providers that face either smaller than anticipated payments from Medicare or higher taxes.

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 buy 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.

The second measure, which House Democrats demanded before agreeing to approve the first, included enough money to close a gap in the Medicare prescription drug coverage over the next decade, starting with an election-season rebate of $250 later this year for seniors facing high costs.

Much of the cost would be covered by the pharmaceutical industry, which made a deal months ago with the White House in which it pledged to spend on television ads to help pass the bill.

The second measure included changes in the student loan program, an administration priority that has been stalled in the Senate for months. It would have the government originate all student loans, denying banks and other private lenders of a lucrative business they have long had.

For the president, the events capped an 18-day stretch in which he traveled to four states and lobbied more than 60 lawmakers in person or by phone. Some who met with him said he warned that the bill's demise could cripple his presidency, and his aides hoped to use the victory on health care as a springboard to success on bills to tackle high unemployment.

Obama watched the vote in the White House's Roosevelt Room with Vice President Joe Biden and dozens of aides, exchanged high fives with Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and then telephoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi with congratulations.

"We proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things," he said later in the White House East Room. "We proved that this government -- a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people.

Crowds of protesters outside the Capitol shouted "just vote no." The House was packed with lawmakers and ringed with spectators in the galleries.

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 Pelosi, D-Calif., partner to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the campaign.

"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 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 the bill's passage was cleared at mid-afternoon when Obama and Democratic leaders reached a compromise with anti-abortion lawmakers whose rebellion had left the outcome in doubt. White House officials announced the president would issue 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.

Republican abortion foes also said Obama's proposed order was insufficient, and when Stupak sought to counter them, a shout of "baby killer" could be heard coming from the Republican side of the chamber.

The measure would usher in an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor. Coverage would be required for incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, $29,327 a year for a family of four. Childless adults would be covered for the first time, starting in 2014.

The insurance industry, which spent millions on advertising trying to block the bill, would come under new federal regulation. They would be forbidden from placing lifetime dollar limits on policies, from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions and from canceling policies when a policyholder becomes ill.

A high-risk pool would offer coverage to uninsured people with medical problems until 2014, when the coverage expansion would go into high gear.

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 more than $200,000 and couples with incomes more than $250,000. A new excise tax on high-cost insurance policies was scaled back in deference to complaints from organized labor.

Also, 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.

Nevada delegation remarks

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., released the following statement Sunday night: "I commend Speaker Pelosi and her team for leading passage of this common sense legislation that puts Americans back in control of their own health care, lowers skyrocketing costs, reduces the deficit, protects seniors and curbs insurance company abuses."

The act will benefit all levels of American society, Reid said.

"As the Senate prepares to complete our work on this historic effort, Senate Democrats reaffirm our commitment to reform because we know it's good for middle-class families, seniors and small businesses in Nevada and all across America."

HOUSE VOTES

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.; Vote: Yes

"For over a year, I've listened to the voices of District Three and heard heartbreaking stories of children denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, small-business owners who can't afford to insure their employees and single moms who have lost their jobs and her insurance," Titus said in a speech from the House floor. "They are the reasons I am voting for reform." Titus said that in her district, health care reform will improve coverage for more than 600,000 people.

Titus said that with her vote, she stood up for what she believes in. "As has been said, 'It's the price of leadership to do the thing you believe has to be done, at the time it must be done.' Now is the time to get it done and pass health care reform."

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.; Vote: Yes

"Once you lose your job, you lose your health care. And I have the very highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the country," said Berkley, referring to Nevada's 1st Congressional District. "Given those facts, I thought that it was important to be able to provide some peace of mind to working families in our state ... that at least if they lost their jobs ... at the very least we could ensure that their health care could continue."

Berkley said the bill would provide $74 million to cover uncompensated care in Southern Nevada hospitals. "I'm a doctor's wife. We do health care in the family. I know this is not a perfect bill. There are parts of it that need to be fixed. But the underlying bill will go a long way to helping American families with their health insurance."

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Vote: No

"Today Congress did a great disservice to the American people," Heller said Sunday in a statement. "By choosing ideology over their constituency, Congress has empowered the federal government to take control of individual health care choices. Those who voted for this measure stood up for political buyoffs and special deals that benefit a small few while sticking the majority of Americans with higher taxes and higher health care costs. For our children and grandchildren, we will be passing on record debt and lower quality of life. At a time when Americans are asking for jobs, Congress has decided to deliver bigger government and less opportunity."

Las Vegas Review-Journal

 

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