Policy-ish

A Historic Week For Health, And Me

Pens readied for President Obama to sign health overhaul into law.

Pens readied for President Obama to sign health overhaul into law. Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

In March of 1986, I began covering health policy for the Congressional Quarterly weekly report. I knew the difference between Medicare (the one for old people) and Medicaid (the one for poor people) when I started, but not much more about health policy.

Twenty-four years later, almost to the day, I stood in the East Room of the White House and watched President Obama sign into law a bill that would extend health insurance to nearly 32 million people over the next 10 years.

Just before the ceremony began, I asked Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), one of the most ardent advocates for health overhaul over the past 14 months, how it felt to be part of such a historic moment. He grabbed my microphone out of my hand and turned it back towards me. "So, Julie Rovner," he joked, "tell us what's in the bill."

Well, what the new law actually does (and there's a lot of it) will be told for days and weeks to come.

But this week was the time to watch history unfold.

Some of it was truly breathtaking. I wrote earlier this week about the "West-Wing-ishness" of it all Sunday night: the House floor full of members, the galleries, including the normally empty press gallery, packed full.

Later in the week, of course, the history got a little more unpleasant. Protesters who had been simply exercising their freedom of expression began turning that expression into threats of violence against those who voted for the bill.

The Senate, being the Senate, churned its way through the budget reconciliation bill, which, in some ways, was the more important of the two measures that made up the overhaul package. It contained the provisions closing the "doughnut hole" in the Medicare prescription drug benefit and scaling back the Cadillac tax on generous health plans that was so detested by organized labor and most House Democrats. Surprisingly, however, the usually plodding Senate completed its work on the bill in a speedy three days.

There had to be at least one glitch, though, and so it was that the budget reconciliation bill had to return to the House for a final vote, because under the strict rules governing the budget reconciliation process (trust me, you don't want to know), about 20 lines of the measure pertaining to the student loan provisions were ruled out of order by the Senate Parliamentarian and had to be dropped from the bill.

Oddly enough, Thursday night's House debate couldn't have been more different from Sunday night's, even though it actually did mark the finale of the process. There were no protesters, only a handful of visitors in the galleries, and members themselves seemed, frankly, eager to get things over with.

During House Minority Leader John Boehner's closing speech, several GOP members were actually reading newspapers. Democrats had to be repeatedly reminded by the chair to stop talking.

Oh, and when the bill passed just after 9 p.m., 220-207, bringing 14 long months of legislative debate to a conclusion, most people just put on their coats and went home. Now that's the legislative history I'm used to.

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