WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has hailed Senate passage of an historic health care bill, saying the government is now “finally poised to deliver on the promise” of overhauling a troubled system.
Speaking not long after the Senate passed the $871 billion bill by a 60-39 vote, Obama welcomed the vote as bringing America “toward the end of a nearly century-long struggle.” He said presidents since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 have been trying unsuccessfully to overhaul medical care.
Standing in the State Room of the White House before leaving on a holiday trip to his home state of Hawaii, Obama said the measure the Senate passed earlier Thursday “includes the toughest measures ever taken to hold the insurance industry accountable.”
The vote tally far exceeded the simple majority required for passage.
The Senate’s bill must still be merged with legislation passed by the House before Obama could sign a final bill in the new year. There are significant differences between the two measures but Democrats say they’ve come too far now to fail.
Both bills would extend health insurance to more than 30 million more Americans.
Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, who made health reform his life’s work, watched the vote from the gallery.
“This morning isn’t the end of the process, it’s merely the beginning. We’ll continue to build on this success to improve our health system even more,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the vote. “But that process cannot begin unless we start today ... there may not be a next time.”
The House passed its own measure in November. The White House and Congress have now come further toward the goal of a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s health care system than any of their predecessors.
The legislation would ban the insurance industry from denying benefits or charging higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the bill will reduce deficits by $130 billion over the next 10 years, an estimate that assumes lawmakers carry through on hundreds of billions of dollars in planned cuts to insurance companies and doctors, hospitals and others who treat Medicare patients.
For the first time, the government would require nearly every American to carry insurance, and subsidies would be provided to help low-income people to do so. Employers would be induced to cover their employees through a combination of tax credits and penalties.
Republicans were withering in their criticism of what they deemed a budget-busting government takeover. If the measure were worthwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., contended before the vote, “they wouldn’t be rushing it through Congress on Christmas Eve.”
The occasion was moving for many who’d followed Kennedy, who died in August.
“He’s having a merry Christmas in Heaven,” Sen. Paul Kirk, D-Mass., appointed to fill Kennedy’s seat, told reporters after the tally.
Kirk said he was “humbled to be here with the honor of casting essentially his vote.”