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Democrats near victorious end of health care fight

WASHINGTON - Capping an epic struggle, congressional Democrats put the final touches Thursday to historic legislation enshrining health care as the right of every citizen. Republicans vowed to campaign for repeal in the fall election season, drawing a quick retort from President Barack Obama: "I welcome that fight."

The president spoke in Iowa as the Senate voted 56-43 for legislation making changes, including better benefits for seniors and low-income and middle-class families, to the bill he signed into law with a flourish at the White House on Tuesday.

The House added its approval a few hours later, 220-207, clearing the way for Obama's signature on the second of two bills that marked the culmination of what the president called "a year of debate and a century of trying" to ensure coverage for nearly all in a nation where millions lack it. Obama is expected to sign the legislation early next week.

Taken together, the two bills also aim to crack down on insurance industry abuses and to reduce federal deficits by an estimated $143 billion over a decade. Most Americans would be required to buy insurance for the first time, and face penalties if they refused.

The second of the two bills also presented Obama with another victory, stripping banks and other private lenders of their ability to originate student loans in favor of a system of direct government lending.

The vast overhaul of higher education aid will give college students access to bigger Pell Grants, and future borrowers of government loans will have an easier time repaying them. The legislation, an Obama domestic priority overshadowed by his health care victory, represents the most sweeping rewrite of college assistance programs in four decades.

After a monthslong battle in Congress, the health care struggle was morphing into a new phase, where public debate was tinged with violence - and politicians accused one another of seeking to exploit it for their own advantage.

Apart from their impact on nearly every American and an estimated one-sixth of the American economy, the week's events marked Obama's biggest political triumphs since he took office more than a year ago. A pending arms control agreement with Russia, announced on Wednesday, added to his resume, and White House officials said they hoped the momentum would translate into further political successes in the run-up to the midterm elections.

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