A beaming President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed a historic $938 billion health care overhaul that guarantees coverage for 32 million uninsured Americans and will touch nearly every citizen’s life, presiding over the biggest shift in U.S. domestic policy since the 1960s and capping a divisive, yearlong debate that could define the November elections.
Celebrating “a new season in America” — the signature accomplishment of his White House so far and one denied to a line of presidents before him — Obama made the massive bill law with an East Room signing ceremony. He was joined by jubilant House and Senate Democrats as well as lesser-known people whose health care struggles have touched the president.
Obama scheduled back-to-back events to mark the moment, with much of his White House audience, as well as hundreds of others, gathering at the Interior Department for Act II immediately after the signing.
“With all the punditry, all the lobbying, all the game-playing that passes for governing here in Washington, it’s been easy at times to doubt our ability to do such a big thing, such a complicated thing, to wonder if there are limits to what we as a people can still achieve,” Obama said, his remarks interrupted by applause after nearly every sentence.
“We are not a nation that scales back its aspirations. We are not a nation that falls prey to doubt or mistrust. We don’t fall prey to fear. We are not a nation that does what’s easy. That’s not who we are. That’s not how we got here.”
The president’s victory lap proceeded even as Congress labored to complete the overhaul with a companion measure making changes to the main bill that were a condition of House Democrats’ approval. Debate on that bill, also passed Sunday by the House, could begin Tuesday in the Senate.
Not everyone was cheering the new law.
Attorneys general from 13 states filed suit to stop the overhaul just minutes after the bill signing, contending the law is unconstitutional. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum took the lead in the lawsuit, joined by colleagues from South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Michigan, Utah, Pennsylvania, Alabama, South Dakota, Louisiana, Idaho, Washington and Colorado. Other GOP attorneys general may join the lawsuit later or sue separately.
In Washington, Republicans remained firm in their opposition to the giant remake of the nation’s health system, declaring it much too costly and unlikely to produce the results that Obama claims. The Republicans pledged to see Democrats punished in this fall’s elections for approving the legislation over deep public skepticism.
“By signing this bill, President Obama is abandoning our founding principle that government governs best when it governs closest to the people,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Never before has such a monumental change to our government been carried out without the support of both parties. This debate has fostered unprecedented division at a time when this nation needs to come together and address the serious challenges we face.”
With that in mind, and with many of the law’s most sweeping changes not to take effect for years, Obama emphasized the overhaul’s most immediate impacts, including the ability of young adults to remain on their parents’ health plans and a ban on insurers denying coverage to sick children.
“We have now just enshrined the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health,” the president said.
The second, much larger event had an even more combative, campaign-like feel. Obama thanked the players from labor unions to grass-roots supporters who helped push the bill forward, and openly criticized Republicans for “still making a lot of noise about what this reform means.”
“Look it up for yourself,” he urged the public. “You don’t have to take my word for it, you’ll see it in your own lives.”