Washington Capping an epic struggle, congressional Democrats put the final touches Thursday to historic legislation enshrining health care as the right of every citizen. Republicans vowed to campaign for repeal in the fall election season, drawing a quick retort from President Barack Obama: “I welcome that fight.”
The president spoke in Iowa as the Senate voted 56-43 for legislation making changes, including better benefits for seniors and low-income and middle-class families, to the bill he signed into law with a flourish at the White House on Tuesday.
The House added its approval a few hours later, 220-207, clearing the way for Obama’s signature on the second of two bills that marked the culmination of what the president called “a year of debate and a century of trying” to ensure coverage for nearly all in a nation where millions lack it. Obama is expected to sign the legislation early next week.
Taken together, the two bills also aim to crack down on insurance industry abuses and to reduce federal deficits by an estimated $143 billion over a decade. Most Americans would be required to buy insurance for the first time, and face penalties if they refused.
The second of the two bills also presented Obama with another victory, stripping banks and other private lenders of their ability to originate student loans in favor of a system of direct government lending.
After a monthslong battle in Congress, the political struggle was morphing into a new phase, where public debate was tinged with violence — and politicians accused one another of seeking to exploit it for their own advantage.
Apart from their impact on nearly every American and an estimated one-sixth of the American economy, the week’s events marked Obama’s biggest political triumphs since he took office more than a year ago. A pending arms control agreement with Russia, announced on Wednesday, added to his resume, and White House officials said they hoped the momentum would translate into further political successes in the run-up to the midterm elections.
“Repeal and replace” was the new slogan for Republicans as they pivoted away from earlier attempts to kill the health care legislation. Officials said it was meant to appeal to tea party activists — who staged an occasionally unruly demonstration outside the Capitol over the weekend — as well as to independent voters eager for changes in the health care system but fearful the Democrats went too far.
“Republicans fought on behalf of the American people this week and will continue to fight until this bill is repealed and replaced with commonsense ideas that solve our problems without dismantling the health care system we have and without burying the American dream under a mountain of debt,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Repeal was far-fetched in the extreme since Republicans are now deep in the minority in both houses and would need a two-thirds majority to overcome a certain veto by Obama.
But Republicans circulated polls showing public backing for the overhaul at no better than 40 percent, despite months of Democratic efforts to rally support. Attacking the bill as a government takeover of health care paid for in higher taxes and Medicare cuts, they taunted House Democrats who voted for it, saying those lawmakers had cleared the way for their own defeat this fall.
Democrats said any unease was the result of months of Republican distractions — as far back as last summer’s debunked charges of “death panels” — and predicted the public would warm to the new law once its first benefits take effect.
That was Obama’s pitch in Iowa, where he trumpeted a “set of reforms” that will take effect before the elections.