Congress passes health-care bill


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.”

Widely 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 dissident Democrats.

Obama’s young presidency received a badly needed boost as a deeply divided Congress passed the rare piece of legislation that will touch the lives of nearly every American. The battle for the future of the medical system — a sixth of the economy — galvanized Republicans and conservative activists, particularly the anti-government tea party movement.

Far beyond the political ramifications — a concern the president repeatedly insisted he paid no mind — were the sweeping changes the bill held in store for Americans, insured or not, as well as 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 purchase 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.

For the president, the events capped an 18-day stretch in which he traveled to four states and lobbied more than 60 wavering lawmakers in person or by phone to secure passage of his signature domestic issue. According to some who met with him, he warned that the bill’s demise could cripple his still-young presidency, and his aides hoped to use the victory on health care as a springboard to success on bills to tackle stubbornly high unemployment that threatens Democratic prospects in the fall.

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