House Passes Health Care Reform

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The House of Representatives tonight passed 220-215 sweeping $1.2 trillion health care reform legislation. The bill garnered the support of just one Republican, Joe Cao of Louisiana; 39 Democrats voted against it.

The vote, which looked uncertain even going into the House Rules Committee last night, came after the adoption 240-194 of an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat ensuring that no money would go to funding abortions. Pro-choice groups expressed outrage over what they considered an assault on a woman’s right to choose and progressives vowed to fight to remove the provision in conference with the Senate. “We’ve sought in the case of this common ground in many areas,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who personally was against the amendment though she brokered the deal to bring it to a vote, told reporters after passage. “We’ll continue to seek common ground.”

The House punted on several contentious issues, such as limiting access of illegal immigrants to the so-called exchange that, if the bill is enacted into law, will be created to help expand coverage to the 50 million uninsured Americans. They also didn’t address medical malpractice liability, an issue identified by President Obama in his special address of the Joint Session of Congress on health care reform, as an area of common ground with Republicans. The GOP, in fact, used their motion to recommit — a proceedural vote the minority often uses to highlight specific problems with legislation — to highlight the lack of liability reform of the system, a surprise as most Democrats expected them to focus on the immigration provisions. The move produced a tense – if amusing – moment during the debate when Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley, a former trial lawyer, delivered the Democratic rebuttal. Republicans taunted him, yelling, “Trial lawyer!” A few of their own, though, couldn’t help but laugh when Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican and a well known employer of several lawyers due to various legal woes, called out, “Line your pockets, ambulance chaser!”

The Republican alternative bill failed mostly along party lines by a vote of 176-258 with one Republican, Timothy Johnson of Illinois, voting Nay. Republicans nearly unilaterally condemned the vote as a “total government takeover of health care,” said Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, in a statement. “This is a tragic day for all Americans, a day that will go down in infamy for anyone who believes in freedom, liberty and the future of our nation and its citizens,” he added. The sole vote for the bill came from Cao, a former Jesuit priest who represents a heavily Democratic district and who was leaned upon by the Catholic Bishops and the White House after the Stupak amendment passed.

Earlier in the day, Tea Party activists held a rally – the second this week – on the East lawn of the Capitol. This one was much smaller, though no less vocal than Thursday’s theatrics. When asked if Dems could expect more protests when they head home tonight for a week’s recess on honor of Veterans Day, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to Congress, pointed to today’s small rally as evidence that the attention paid to far right opposition is fading. “They had a protest today and it didn’t seem to scare anyone’s vote tonight,” Van Hollen said.

President Obama, who made a rare Saturday trip to Capitol Hill to rally the caucus, called to congratulate Pelosi and the Democratic leadership after the vote. He also personally called several fence sitters thoughout the day. “I decided this afternoon that I’d vote for it,” said Rep. Dan Maffei, a New York Democrat who is facing a tough reelection at home. “It was going to be tough either way I voted… The president reassured me that [several of my issues] would be addressed going forward.”

Of the Democrats that voted Nay, most were from swing districts like Maffei. Though, at least one, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, voted against the bill from the left saying it didn’t go far enough to reign in health insurers. “We cannot fault the insurance companies for being what they are,” Kucinich said in a statement. “But we can fault legislation in which the government incentivizes the perpetuation, indeed the strengthening, of the for-profit health insurance industry, the very source of the problem.”

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told reporters at the end of the night that the vote has been the toughest of his career, the climate change bill earlier this year a “distant second.” Pelosi, who brought down the gavel on final passage and was applauded, hugged and lauded by every Democrat – even those who voted against the bill, was more sanguine. “They’re all a challenge in their own way, remember the stimulus, the budget, climate change?” she said, before walking into her offices to a thunderous round of applause just after midnight.

The bill now heads to the Senate where passage before the end of the year remains uncertain. House Dems, though, in a victory press conference, preened at their achievement. “We’ve done something people have been trying to do for more than 100 years,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “This is a great day.”