Obama's off to Hawaii with big Christmas present (News Feature)
By Mike McCarthy Dec 24, 2009, 14:32 GMT
Washington - The US Senate gave President Barack Obama a big Christmas gift as he heads off to Hawaii on holiday, passing sweeping health care reform that was the centerpiece of his first year's domestic agenda.
The passage in an early Thursday morning 60-39 vote is a major political triumph for Obama, and fulfills a key campaign promise many of his predecessors were unable to make good on.
Reacting to the vote shortly before his departure, Obama said the legislation 'brings us toward the end of a nearly century-long struggle to reform America's health care system.'
'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,' he said.
After months of intense and often-heated debate, the Senate passed a bill that would extend coverage to 30 million Americans. The bill, which will cost 871 billion dollars over 10 years, would be the federal government's largest expansion into health care in more than four decades.
Less than a year into office, Obama has succeeded where many before him have not, most notably Bill Clinton's failed effort in the 1990s. Facing steep odds, Clinton scrapped his plan before it even went to a vote.
But Obama's achievement could come at a cost. The bill that cleared the House of Representatives in November and the Senate's version Thursday were accomplished almost exclusively with the votes of Obama's Democrats. Republicans were united in opposing the measures, arguing the plan is a massive government intrusion into the private sector.
With polls showing public opinion has turned against the health care reform legislation, Republicans are sure to put it at the forefront of 2010 congressional mid-term elections, and it could come back to hurt Democrats representing moderate or conservative districts.
Democrats are hopeful the public will warm to the bill once there is a better understanding of what it accomplishes.
'When people hear what is actually in the bill and all the good it does it is going to become more popular,' Senator Chuck Schumer said.
Yet the fallout is already being felt. Democratic House Representative Parker Griffith announced on Tuesday that he was switching to the Republicans, citing the health care bill as a key reason. Griffith, who represents a district in Alabama, was among the few dozen Democrats who voted against the bill.
Griffith's departure left the Democratic majority in the House to 257-178 and all of the seats are up for grabs in November's elections. History has shown that the president's party typically loses seats in the first mid-term elections.
Obama still faces some challenges when Congress returns to session in January. Senate and House lawmakers must smooth over differences in their respective bills, and there are some tricky issues to work out before Obama can sign it into law.
Unlike the Senate bill, the House version contains a controversial 'public option,' which would establish a government-run insurance programme. The public option was part of Obama's goal during the campaign, but the provision had to be dropped when it lacked support in the Senate - an important compromise Obama was forced to accept.
The House bill also has stricter provisions to prevent the use of federal money for abortions and would raise income taxes on wealthy Americans to pay for the plan.
Conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch predicted that Obama is still far away from achieving his goal, and questioned whether the House and Senate will be able to come to terms.
'I do not believe the House is going to take this (Senate) bill,' he said on CNN.
Obama said he will work with Congress to ensure a final bill passes and vowed not to miss the historic opportunity.
'We are now incredibly close to making health insurance reform a reality in this country. Our challenge then is to finish the job,' he said.