Last night, the House of Representatives passed comprehensive health care reform after more than a year of fierce debate. The sweeping legislation will extend coverage to 32 million Americans, curb the worst abuses of the private insurance industry, and attempt to contain spiraling health care costs.
The main bill passed the House by a vote 219 to 212, after which the House approved a package of changes to the Senate bill by a vote of 220 to 211. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will sign the main bill into law. Then, the Senate will incorporate the House-approved changes through filibuster-proof budget reconciliation, perhaps as early as this week.
Last night’s vote was a resounding victory for the Democrats. John Nichols of The Nation compares the passage of health care reform to other great milestones in American legislative history, including the Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act.
Like all great progressive victories, this one was hard fought. Paul Waldman writes in the American Prospect:
This effort will be remembered as one of the most anguished legislative battles in history, alongside the Civil Rights Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the creation of Medicare, and a few others. The positive outcome is not enough to restore one’s faith in the American political system, because the process did so much to destroy that faith. American politics has never been particularly reasonable or reasoned, but this debate saw a plague of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and outright lies that puts anything most of us can remember to shame.
Tea partiers slinging slurs
Months of inflammatory rhetoric about communism and death panels whipped the right wing into a frenzy. Opposition reached a fever pitch this weekend as tea partiers and other anti-reformers gathered in the Capitol. On Sunday afternoon, some House Republican legislators further inflamed the angry protesters by shouting encouragement from the balcony of the Capitol building, as Suzy Khimm reports for Mother Jones.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) chastised his colleagues for riling up the protesters, saying “It’s like the Salem witch trials—the health care bill has become their witch. It’s a supernatural force, and we’ve got hysteria.”
In separate incidents several anti-reform protesters hurled racist slurs at Democratic legislators. Brian Beutler relates this shocking incident for TPMDC:
Civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and fellow Congressional Black Caucus member Andre Carson (D-IN) related a particularly jarring encounter with a large crowd of protesters screaming “kill the bill”… and punctuating their chants with the word “nigger.”
Standing next to Lewis, emerging from a Democratic caucus meeting with President Obama, Carson said people in the crowd yelled, “kill the bill and then the N-word” several times, while he and Lewis were exiting the Cannon House office building.
Adele Stan of AlterNet reported that one protester was arrested after spitting on African American legislator Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO).
The racial undercurrent to the anti-reform movement has been obvious from the beginning. The carefully coded language dropped away this weekend as protesters began to lose hope of killing the bill.
No public option…yet
To the chagrin of progressives, the final bill does not include a public health insurance option. However, going back to Mother Jones, Suzy Khimm reports that Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, promised to introduce a bill to create a strong public option as soon as Obama signs health care reform into law.
As tea party protests raged outside, it seemed as if abortion might derail health reform. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) insisted that he had the votes to kill the bill. At the last minute, Stupak was placated with an executive order from the president reiterating that the health care reform would not fund elective abortions.
The executive order is a red herring. It won’t impose any further restrictions, it just restates the status quo. Mike Lillis posted a copy of the order at the Washington Independent. The president might as well have reiterated a ban on federal funds for vajazzling. Health care reform was never going to fund vajazzling or abortion, but if Stupak finds the repetition soothing, so be it.
The chair of the pro-choice caucus, Rep. Lois DeGette (D-CO) acquiesced to the Stupak compromise, describing the overall bill as a “strong foundation,” according to John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent. Pro-choice groups will be angry, but realistically, the executive order was the best possible outcome. For a while, it looked like Democrats were going to have to make substantive concessions to Stupak. In the end, he flipped his vote for a presidential proclamation of the status quo.
In a last ditch effort to derail reform, the Republicans tried to reinsert Stupak’s strict anti-abortion language into the reconciliation package. The Republicans were trying to poison the reconciliation bill in order to threaten its chances in the Senate, explains Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent. The gambit failed. When Stupak rose to speak against the motion, he was shouted down by Republican representatives. One unidentified member called Stupak a “baby killer.”
Bad with the good
Health care reform is not the progressive panacea that many had hoped for. The private insurance industry remains firmly in control, buttressed by government subsidies and no competition from the public sector. However, real changes are coming.
Within the next 6 months, children will be allowed to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26. Lifetime benefit caps are history, and annual caps will be regulated. Insurers will no longer be allowed to dump customers who get sick, or offer coverage to children for everything but their preexisting conditions.
Going down in history
Whatever else Obama may accomplish, he will go down in history as the president who put the United States on the path to universal health care. Skeptics said it couldn’t be done. Adele Stan observes in AlterNet:
It took the first African-American president and the first woman Speaker of the House to do what generations of politicians had failed to do: create a federally regulated health-care reform program that extends health insurance coverage to the majority of Americans.
Health care reform is not an end in itself, it’s a process. Passing this legislation is the first step towards establishing health care as a right of all Americans. Like any attempt to expand the rights of the disenfranchised, the struggle will be met with fierce resistance.
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