WASHINGTON – Historic health care reform legislation passed the House of Representatives last night after a tumultuous debate that topped off days of last-minute arm-twisting and months of political wrangling.
As dueling crowds of protesters shouted and waved signs outside the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress faced off over the merits of a bill that will reshape one sixth of the U.S. economy and affect every American.

It will extend health insurance coverage to 32 million people who lack it, block insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions or capping their lifetime claims, and cut the federal budget deficit by approximately $138 billion over a decade and $1.2 trillion over twenty years.

Democrats compared its significance to the Civil Rights Act, and the legislation that created Social Security and Medicare. Its passage comes after decades of discussing how to fix a health care system everyone acknowledges to be broken.

“I know this bill is complicated,” House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said on the House floor. “It is also very simple. Illness and infirmity are universal, and we are stronger against them together than alone. Our bodies may fail us. Our neighbors don’t have to.”

Republicans countered that the bill would skyrocket the national debt and lead to an unprecedented level of government intrusion into health care. They placed handbills on the seats of Democrats to remind them how many of their colleagues lost their re-election efforts after supporting tax increases in President Clinton’s 1993 budget.

“This is the people’s house,” shouted House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio. “The moment a majority forgets it, it starts writing itself a ticket to minority status. If we pass this bill, there will be no turning back. It will be the last straw for the American people. And in a democracy, you can only ignore the will of the people for so long and get away with it.”

The bill will require almost everyone to be insured or pay a fine. It would expand eligibility for Medicaid government insurance, and eventually close the so-called “doughnut hole” in prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients.

It is endorsed by interest groups including AARP, Consumers Union and the American Medical Association, and opposed by groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and health insurers.

The bill passed in a 219 to 212 vote, with no support from Republicans. Later in the evening, Democrats were expected to pass a package of budget-related fixes to eliminate provisions of the bill that members of the public found distasteful, including Senate-inserted perks for states like Nebraska and Louisiana. Cheers erupted on the House floor when the winning 216th vote was cast.

The only Ohioan among the 34 Democrats to oppose the bill was Zack Space of Dover, who dislikes that it would tax the middle class rather than the wealthy to subsidize insurance for low-income workers. Space said small businesses and hospitals in his district overwhelmingly oppose the plan.

“I am in this job to represent the people of Ohio’s 18th district,” said Space. “We have been getting thousands of calls from within the district. The overwhelming majority are opposed to the bill.”

The rest of Ohio’s Democrats backed the bill. Toledo’s Marcy Kaptur and Cincinnati’s Steve Driehaus were among a group of anti-abortion legislators who signed off on the bill Sunday after President Obama promised to sign an executive order to clarify that it wouldn’t permit federal money to be used for abortion.

“This is actually a bill about life for all American families,” Kaptur said. “No longer will any woman have to wonder whether she can bring a child to term because she can’t afford it.”

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid simultaneously sought Kaptur’s support earlier this week at the White House. Phone lines to Kaptur’s office were jammed by callers from around the country.

Driehaus, who represents a swing political district, initially said he’d vote against the bill because it didn’t go far enough to keep tax dollars from funding abortion. Republicans reacted to his switch by claiming he’d “caved” to Pelosi, and that his vote would “make him a one-term wonder come Election Day.”

Driehaus said he’s proud of the health care bill and will campaign on the benefits it will deliver to his constituents.

“The Republicans and the Republican tea party are opposed to what we do because they play politics,” said Driehaus. “For them, this isn’t about health care. It isn’t about doing what’s right for the American people. It’s about engaging in scare tactics and winning elections.”

Cleveland’s Dennis Kucinich also took heat for reversing previously announced opposition to the bill. He said he still has reservations, but hopes its adoption will enable passage of improved health care legislation in the future and “break the gridlock in Washington on economic issues, jobs, and housing issues.”

“The American people feel like we can’t do big things right now, and I think this is going to repair that,” agreed Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles. “We are going to be able to go back to our districts and tell a family of four that makes $50,000 a year that they’re going to get a $5,800 tax credit to pay for their health care.   Story From The Plain Dealer