Obama, top Dems merry after Senate health bill passage

President Barack Obama praised as “historic” the Christmas Eve Senate passage of a sweeping healthcare reform bill he said “brings us toward the end of a nearly century-long struggle to reform America’s healthcare system.”

The Senate’s action also brings Obama to the brink of signing into law the kind of reforms that have eluded presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

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“With today’s vote, we are now incredibly close to making health insurance reform a reality in this country. Our challenge, then, is to finish the job,” Obama said. “We are now finally poised to deliver on the promise of real, meaningful health insurance reform that will bring additional security and stability to the American people.”

Senate Democrats were jubilant after the vote. “Never before has the Senate found the resolve to make health insurance more affordable and health insurance companies more accountable until today. This is a victory for the American people,” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “This is a victory because we've affirmed that the ability to live a healthy life in our great country is a right, and not merely a privilege for the select few.”

Reid addressed the media, but did not take questions, alongside other Senate Democratic leaders, including the two men who shepherded healthcare reform through the committee phase: Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“It's been nearly two years since we began our work on healthcare reform here in the Senate, and we're all very, very proud of this moment,” said Baucus, who authored the centrist version of the bill that ultimately was the basis of the measure approved Thursday.

The scene on the Senate floor was typically subdued as senators voted from their desks as clerks called the roll and Vice President Joe Biden oversaw the proceedings in his constitutional role as president of the Senate. There were exceptions, however.

There was a solemn moment when ailing Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving member of Congress in history, paid tribute to the late “Lion of the Senate” and longtime champion of healthcare reform, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died in August.


“This is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye,” said Byrd, who turned 92 last month and has missed much of the year due to illness. Obama called Kennedy's widow, Vicki Reggie Kennedy, who also watched the vote from the gallery, after the Senate passed the bill.

Reid initially voted against his own bill before changing his call to “aye.” Afterward, he joked to reporters, “I spent a very restless night last night trying to figure out how I could show some bipartisanship. And I think I was able to accomplish that for a few minutes today.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the self-described democratic socialist whose vote was in doubt just last week, arrived a bit late and was greeted by Democrats with applause as he cast his vote to pass the bill.

Members of the public in the viewing gallery applauded when the bill passed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered a stern reminder that his party unanimously opposed the measure — and that polls show public opinion has not solidified behind the Democrats’ bill. “I guarantee you the people who voted for this bill are going to get an earful when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving,” he said. “They know there is widespread opposition to this monstrosity.

“This fight isn’t over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law,” McConnell said.

Obama acknowledged that the hard-won Democratic victory in the Senate is not the final chapter for healthcare reform. “We now have to take up the last and most important step and reach an agreement on a final reform bill that I can sign into law, and I look forward to working with members of Congress in both chambers over the coming weeks,” he said.

Democratic leaders from the House and Senate must now come together to reconcile significant differences between their bills while not shattering the fragile unity of Democrats in the upper chamber. Rough — but mostly behind-the-scenes — battles will be fought in the coming weeks over issues such as abortion coverage, tax increases and a House-passed government-run public option health insurance program.

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Obama and House Democratic leaders will have to persuade their liberal rank-and-file members that the Senate bill would achieve the kind of transformation described by the president. “This will be the most important piece of social policy since the Social Security Act in the 1930s, and the most important reform of our healthcare system since Medicare passed in the 1960s,” Obama said. “These are not small reforms; these are big reforms.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the “dean of the House” and the longest-tenured member in its history, paid a visit to the halls of the Senate to see the vote for himself and predicted Democrats would come together to deliver a bill to Obama. Dingell is to healthcare reform in the House what Kennedy was in the Senate. His father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., pushed for healthcare reform from the 1930s until his death in 1955.

“It was for me, it was for Dad, it was for the country a very important day and I just wanted to be over here to see what is happening,” Dingell said.

Dingell said merging the House bill, which carries his name as the lead sponsor, and the Senate bill would be difficult but achievable. “It’ll be like squaring a circle, but we’ll do it,” he said. “Everybody has to give a little.

“I think that the House will come together behind this bill,” Dingell said, adding, “We will see what comes from the conference.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the Senate for advancing its legislation. “Today’s vote in the United States Senate brings us closer to providing quality, affordable health insurance to every American,” Pelosi said in a statement. “I commend Sen. Reid for his strong leadership in passing this bill, which takes a critical step on behalf of the health and security of all Americans.”


Walter Alarkon contributed to this article.