House Health Care Vote Makes History

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The House of Representatives passed a bill to overhaul the nation's health care system Saturday night. The vote was close, 220-215, and it only included a single Republican. To pass the bill, Democrats also had to allow a controversial amendment banning abortion funding in both public and private plans in the new marketplaces the bill would create. But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, passage represents a major hurdle cleared for President Obama's top domestic priority.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The House of Representatives last night made history. For the first time it passed a bill to overhaul the nation's health care system. The vote was close and it included only one Republican. To pass the bill, Democrats also had to allow a controversial amendment banning abortion funding in both public and private plans in the new marketplaces the bill would create.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, passage represents a major hurdle cleared for President Obama's top domestic priority.

JULIE ROVNER: In a major break with decorum, the House floor Saturday night felt more like a college football stadium. The normally empty gallery was full, and House members themselves chanted down the final seconds to the end of the historic vote.

Unidentified People: Four, three, two, one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROVNER: Then a jubilant House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the final tally on the bill.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The yays are 220. The nays are 215. The bill is passed.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ROVNER: At a news conference afterward, Pelosi explained how the bill will make a difference for Americans who need better health care.

Rep. PELOSI: If our bill prevails, being a woman is no longer a preexisting medical condition, that if you have a preexisting medical condition, you cannot be denied insurance just because you've become ill. If you're a senior, the doughnut hole is closed. If you're a young person, you can be on your parents' policy until your 27th birthday. If you're a consumer, you are protected by the public option. The list goes on and on.

ROVNER: But for Republicans, the list of reasons to oppose the bill went on and on as well. Some put it more colorfully than others, like Jeb Hensarling of Texas.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): We should never support a children-bankrupting, health care-rationing, freedom-crushing $1 trillion government takeover of our health care system.

ROVNER: But to get a majority of votes almost exclusively from among their own caucus, Democratic leaders had to bow to the minority of their members who oppose abortion rights. For weeks they'd been trying to craft a compromise on abortion language, but in the end they were forced to allow anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan to offer an amendment to bar all federal funding in the new health care exchanges. That would include both the new government-run health insurance plan that would be created, as well as private plans that would be subsidized for low and moderate income people.

Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): So, I ask my colleagues -Democrats and Republicans alike - let us stand together on principle of no public funding for abortion, no public funding for insurance policies that pay for abortion. Stand with us, protect our role and let's keep current law.

ROVNER: Abortion rights backers in the House were furious that their leaders allowed the amendment, which passed easily with the support of nearly all the chamber's Republicans. Barbara Lee of California said the amendment represented anything but current law.

Representative BARBARA LEE (Democrat, California): This amendment goes way beyond the Hyde Amendment that denied federal funds for abortion and attempts to dictate to women how to spend their own money. It's simply outrageous. It is outrageous. It further places the religious views, mind you, of some into our public policy again. We're a democracy, we're not a theocracy.

ROVNER: But the debate wasn't all bitter. Being a Saturday and a historic bill, many members brought family and friends. At one point, Arizona Republican John Shadegg came to the podium cradling Maddie Thompson, the infant daughter of his chief of staff.

Representative JOHN SHADEGG (Republican, Arizona): She believes in choice, but most of all, Maddie says, don't tax me to pay for health care that you guys want. If you want health care, pay for it yourselves, because it's not fair to pass your health care bills onto me and to my grandchildren.

Unidentified Man: Gentleman's time has expired.

Rep. SHADEGG: Thank you, Maddie.

ROVNER: Not to be outdone, California Democrat Pete Stark marched to the front of the chamber accompanied by his highly telegenic eight-year-old twins Hannah and Andrew.

Representative PETE STARK (Democrat, California): I'm proud to have helped author this legislation. I encourage each of my colleagues to join me in voting yes, and I could assure you these guys aren't going to have to pay for it in the future.

ROVNER: But while Democrats were thrilled with their victory, this is only the first of four tough floor votes they'll have to win to get a bill to the president's desk. The Senate must approve its version of a health overhaul bill. That debate's expected to begin in the next week or two. Then a compromise between the two bills must be negotiated and passed by each chamber once again.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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