LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And Im Renee Montagne.
It was an historic Sunday in the U.S. Capitol. It took an entire weekend of marathon sessions as the House of Representatives moved slowly in the direction of passing the Democrats' health care overhaul, and finally, a series of votes last night put it over the top.
The Democrats mustered the minimum 216 votes plus three more, and the gavel went down - the House had approved the Senate health care bill. We'll hear President Obama's reaction to the vote in a moment.
First, NPR's Andrea Seabrook takes us to the crucial hour when the bill went from up in the air to done deal.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Abortion: it was one of the most contentious issues in this debate from the very beginning, over a year ago. A longstanding law bars federal funds from being used to pay for elective abortions; it's called the Hyde Amendment, and it's an agreement between pro-choice and pro-life lawmakers that is so delicate it could balance on a pin.
When debate on health care began yesterday afternoon, House Democrats still didn't have the votes to pass the bill. They were close, but a group of pro-life Democrats were holding out, hoping to get a vote on the stricter abortion language written last year by Michigan's Bart Stupak.
Then suddenly, a surprising floor speech from another conservative Democrat, one who spent six years in Catholic seminary before entering politics, Michigan's Dale Kildee.
Representative DALE KILDEE (Democrat, Michigan): I will be 81 years old this September. Certainly at this stage of my life I am not going to change my mind and support abortion. I am not going to jeopardize my eternal salvation. I've sought counsel from my priest, advice from my family, friends and constituents, and I have read the Senate abortion prohibition more than a dozen times.
I am convinced that the original prohibition of the Hyde amendment is in the Senate bill.
SEABROOK: Kildee urged Democrats to vote for the born and the unborn by supporting the Democrats' health care bill.
Shortly after that, a notice came that Bart Stupak was hastily organizing a press conference. And moments before it began, the White House shot out an email to all the media at once: an executive order from President Obama with the title Ensuring Enforcement and Implementation of Abortion Restrictions in the Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act.
Stupak took the podium.
Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): I'm pleased to announce that we have an agreement. And it's with the help of the president, the speaker, we were able to come up with an agreement to protect the sanctity of life in the health care reform, that there will be no public funding for abortion in this legislation.
SEABROOK: What pro-life Democrats couldn't get into the final bill, they managed to achieve with that executive order: a blanket prohibition on the use of federal funds for elective abortions, the explicit separation of federal subsidies from private money when consumers buy health plans that cover abortions, and a clarification that the new health care laws legally protect hospitals, doctors and other providers that object to providing abortions as a matter of conscience.
It was enough to change the whole narrative about the health care legislation.
Representative MARCY KAPTUR (Democrat, Ohio): The health bill that will move forward today is actually a bill about life.
SEABROOK: Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, is a staunch opponent of abortion who became a big supporter of the bill.
Rep. KAPTUR: No longer will any woman have to wonder whether she can bring a child to term because she can't afford it. The provisions in this bill that have to do with maternal health care, with child health care, with preventive care, the adoption credits that were included in the bill, take us to a new day in America.
SEABROOK: As the tide turned on the House floor, Republicans were left fighting the bill on legal grounds. Florida's Cliff Stearns warned pro-life Democrats.
Representative CLIFF STEARNS (Republican, Florida): Mr. Stupak, no lawyer will argue that an executive order is law. So the Senate bill starts us on a path of government-sanctioned abortion on demand, paid for by taxpayers.
SEABROOK: And as votes began to show Democrats were winning, Republicans mounted a last offensive. They offered a motion that would block the Democrats' health care bill and install Bart Stupak's original, stricter abortion language.
But by then, Democrats had a foolproof defense for that: Bart Stupak himself.
Rep. STUPAK: This motion is nothing more than an opportunity to continue to deny 32 million Americans health care.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
SEABROOK: By the end of the night, Stupak had gone from a virtual pariah among House Democrats to their health care hero.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.