House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday credited the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) with driving the success of the Democrats' healthcare law – even from his grave.
The California Democrat said Kennedy — who died of brain cancer in August 2009, months before the law passed — provided the inspiration for Democrats to continue fighting for the reforms, which the Supreme Court largely upheld Thursday in the face of constitutional challenges.
"I knew that when he left us he would go to heaven and help pass the bill," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. "And now he can rest in peace. His dream for America's families has become a reality."
After the ruling was announced, Pelosi said she called Vicki Kennedy, the senator's widow, as well as former-Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the late senator's son, to thank them "for the important role that he played — a lifetime of commitment — to making healthcare a right, not a privilege, in our country."
"He called it the great unfinished business of ... our society," she said.
Pelosi said the court's decision to uphold the individual insurance mandate of President Obama's signature healthcare law marks "a victory for the American people."
"With this ruling, Americans will benefit from critical patient protections, lower costs for the middle class, more coverage for families, and greater accountability for the insurance industry," Pelosi said in an earlier statement.
The liberal Democrat had for months predicted the high court would rule 6-3 in favor of the law, calling the Affordable Care Act “ironclad” and constitutional.
She was off by one vote. The court decided 5-4 that Congress has the constitutional authority to require almost everyone in the country to buy insurance or pay a financial penalty.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court's four liberal justices in backing the mandate.
The ruling is an enormous victory for Obama and Pelosi, who, as House Speaker in 2009 and 2010, shepherded the law through the lower chamber.
Pelosi on Thursday was quick to recognize the historic significance of the court's decision.
“In passing health reform, we made history for our nation and progress for the American people," she said in the statement. "We completed the unfinished business of our society and strengthened the character of our country. We ensured health care would be a right for all, not a privilege for the few.
"Today, the Supreme Court affirmed our progress and protected that right, securing a future of health and economic security for the middle class and for every American," she added.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he wasn’t surprised by the court’s ruling.
"As we've been saying, that's what we expected. The action we have taken was constitutional,” Hoyer told The Hill.
Asked if the ruling helps or hurts Obama politically, Hoyer said:
"It is helpful. President Obama has said it is constitutional. The court has now said it is constitutional. The president has been very strong in his position that this would make and facilitate healthcare being available to people who now don't have it. That's very important to keep our nation healthy, to keep our people healthy.”
House Democrats were jubilant outside the court, even as Tea Party speeches blared from nearby speakers.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) whooped before a throng of news cameras.
"I am brought to tears today," she said.
"Many of us come from the poorest districts and stand here today in the name of the sick, of the young mothers trying to get their children immunized."
The other Democrats who gathered included Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Laura Richardson (Calif.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), Hansen Clarke (Mich.), and Rush Holt (N.J.).
Ron Pollack of Families USA, an advocacy group that strongly supported the law, called the decision a "hallelujah moment for American families."
"Today's Supreme Court ruling is a clear, unambiguous and complete victory for long-overdue healthcare reform.
"It sends an unmistakable message that the building of a better, fairer healthcare system will continue to move forward," he said.
Pelosi learned about the court’s ruling during the last few minutes of a whip meeting, her office said. She left to make phone calls to Obama and Vice President Biden, leaving messages with both.
In a call to her husband, Paul, Pelosi said: “Sweetie, we won.”
While Pelosi had repeatedly expressed confidence the healthcare law would be upheld, she wasn't leaving anything to chance. She wore a pair of purple pumps to work on Thursday – the same shoes she wore the day the legislation passed in March 2010.
After the ruling, Pelosi ran into Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on the way to a Democratic caucus meeting, embracing her colleague.
“What a great victory!” Pelosi said.
“You bet your ass [it is]," Miller responded.
“I did,” Pelosi said.
— Ben Geman contributed to this report.
— Originally posted at 10:59 a.m. and last updated at 2:25 p.m.