Health Bill Signing: More Rally Than Pomp

After covering health policy for 25 years, I've never seen anything quite like the past 48 hours.

During all those hours of poring over the fine print of health bills, sitting in poorly-lit hearing rooms listening to boring witnesses give even more boring prepared statements, and eating very bad takeout food, I'm not sure I ever imagined what it would actually feel like to stand in the East Room of the White House and watch a President of the United States sign a bill to provide health insurance to most of those in the country who currently lack it.

But what transpired this morning was definitely not it.

First, it was a lot more like a high school pep rally than a signing ceremony. The packed room, filled almost exclusively House and Senate Democrats, were definitely not particularly impressed by being in the White House. They were impressed that they made it there for a health bill. They killed time waiting for the President by snapping pictures of each other with cameras and cell phones. I'll admit, I snapped a few photos, too, but they're a little blurry.

The jocular crowd even booed a White House staffer who asked that they not hold up the cameras during the actual signing of the bill, so that the professional photographers who were on ladders behind them could get the photos needed to mark the moment for history — rather than Facebook.

They did give a standing ovation to Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. He's been pushing for universal health care for the 55 years he's been serving in Congress. And his father pushed for it before that. Dingell waved his crutch at the cheering throng.

And when the President acknowledged that lawmakers had "taken their lumps during this difficult debate," Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York shouted: "Yes we did."

But that line might have been more fitting coming from Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, who's been at the center of a nasty abortion fight (he opposes abortion funding) for months now. When he was speaking on the House floor Sunday night in favor of the bill, Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, shouted "baby killer" at him.

Speaking of Sunday night, that was another one for the history books. Normally the House floor, even for major debates, features a handful of members, a few people in the visitors' galleries, and a smattering of journalists in the press gallery inside the chamber. Most journalists sit inside the main gallery, because computers and other electronic equipment can't be used inside the chamber; you have to take notes with pen and paper.

Sunday night, however, it seemed the entire House membership was present for the debate. Every seat in every visitor gallery was full. Even the press gallery was full, something that never happens except for the annual State of the Union speech. Outside, protestors for and against the bill chanted every time a member went to or from his or her office to the Capitol.

It looked for all the world like an episode of West Wing. Except it was really happening.

And of course there were those misbehaving Democrats again. As she walked down the aisle to make her speech, they stood and cheered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi like she was the homecoming queen and the star quarterback, all rolled into one.

During the vote House members signed each others' copies of the bill like they were high school yearbooks. And as the numbers on the electronic tally board grew, they began to chant. At 215, they chanted "one more vote. One more vote." Then, when it reached the magic majority of 216, they cheered and chanted "Yes we did. Yes we did."

Against the rules? Probably. But the Democrats deserve a chance to celebrate, at least for the moment. There's a lot more fighting ahead.



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