Health Care Signature A Historic Moment

It may have been harder than he thought, taken longer, and required more compromises than many Democrats hoped, but President Obama signed sweeping health care legislation into law on Tuesday.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Nothing about the nation's new health care law happened quickly, including the formal signing at the White House yesterday. President Obama took nearly two minutes and 22 souvenir pens to put his name on the law.

In a moment, we'll hear how Republicans will be using that legislation to campaign against Democrats between now and November. But yesterday, for hundreds of supporters crowded into the White House East Room, the ritual and the landmark legislation were worth the wait. NPR's Scott Horsley has this report.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The East Room signing ceremony was actually one of two health care celebrations that President Obama hosted yesterday. He also spoke to about 500 hundred overhaul advocates who gathered at the Interior Department.

President BARACK OBAMA: We wanted to do this twice, because there's so many people we have to thank.

HORSLEY: The president, a former community organizer, said credit for passing the legislation goes far beyond Washington, to everyone who wrote letters, made phone calls and agitated for change. It was that pressure that kept the effort alive, he said, when many were insisting this was not the time for such a sweeping revision.

President OBAMA: You didn't want to wait another year, or another decade, or another generation for reform. You felt the fierce urgency of now. You met the lies with truth. You met cynicism with conviction. Most of all, you met fear with a force that's a lot more powerful and that is faith in America. You met it with hope.

(Soundbite of applause)

CROWD: (Chanting) Fire it up. Ready to go. Fire it up. Ready to go.

HORSLEY: The boisterous party in the White House East Room had the feel, and in the case of Vice President Biden, some of the coarse language of a winning locker room. Democrats cheered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Mr. Obama said the two Hill leaders kept their fractious caucuses together and never lost sight of the larger mission.

President OBAMA: It's also a testament to the historic leadership and uncommon courage of the men and women of the United States Congress, who've taken their lumps during this difficult debate.

Unidentified Man: Yes, we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: President Obama himself quarterbacked the final drive for the legislation after Democrats lost their 60 vote majority in the Senate. In that effort, he showed, once again, the audacity and tenacity that helped put him into the White House.

President OBAMA: After a century of striving, after a year of debate, after a historic vote, health care reform is no longer an unmet promise. It is the law of the land.

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: It is the law of the land.

HORSLEY: For all the celebration among Democrats, though, the new health care law remains every bit as controversial as it was a week ago. Republican lawmakers are campaigning to repeal it and more than a dozen states are challenging its legality.

Mr. Obama suggests that opposition will diminish, now that the law is on the books and what he called, overheated rhetoric, gives way to reality.

President OBAMA: I heard one of the Republican leaders say this was going to be Armageddon. Well, you know, two months from now, six months from now, you can check it out. We'll look around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: And we'll see. You don't have to take my word for it.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama insists the more people get to know about the health care law, the more they'll like it. Some of the most important pieces don't take effect for four years, including the state-run insurance exchanges and the subsidies for individual coverage. But other elements will be visible in just six months, including tax breaks for small businesses that provide coverage for their workers, and a ban on insurance companies dropping policyholders who get sick.

President OBAMA: I'm confident that you will like what you see - a common sense approach that maintains the private insurance system, but makes it work for everybody - makes it work, not just for the insurance companies, but makes it work for you.

HORSLEY: A Gallup poll, taken just after Sunday's House vote, does show the public warming, somewhat, to the new law. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said it's a good thing, while just 40 percent called the new law a bad thing.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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