Monday, March 22, 2010

‘This is what change looks like’

“I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
President Obama

Yesterday’s date rendered strictly in numerical form — 3.21.10 — looks a lot like what the day turned out to be: a countdown clock on ruinous past practices, the arrival of time’s-up on a national legacy that’s been a national embarrassment before the world. It might have been just another official first full day of spring if not for the fact that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were busy changing the arc of the national future.

With the initiative and energy of President Obama and the negotiating skill of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership, a courageous Democratic Congress voted last night to enact the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the most panoramic change in health insurance coverage for American citizens since Medicare in 1966.

In two dramatic votes last night the Democratic led House passed the Senate bill 219-212, passed the reconciliation bill 220-211. The Senate bill, passed last Christmas Eve, now goes to President Obama to be signed into law in a ceremony on Tuesday morning. The reconciliation bill makes corrections to the Senate bill; it goes to the Senate for a final vote. A motion to recommit was also defeated by the Democrats.

The vote last night and the president’s expected signature in the morning usher in the most sweeping realignment of the terms of the social contract between the federal government and the American people in generations, and the closest thing to universal health care this nation has ever seen.

MSNBC’s Ed Schultz got the gravity of the occasion: “This is a defining moment in our history when it comes to what our priorities are. We have chosen people over profit.”

Talk-radio velociraptor and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh might want to have his Costa Rican real estate agent on speed-dial right about now.

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“Tonight, after nearly 100 years of talk and frustration, after decades of trying, and a year of sustained effort and debate, the United States Congress finally declared that America’s workers and America's families and America's small businesses deserve the security of knowing that here, in this country, neither illness nor accident should endanger the dreams they’ve worked a lifetime to achieve,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House last night, after the deal went down.

“Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics. We pushed back on the undue influence of special interests. We didn't give in to mistrust or to cynicism or to fear. Instead, we proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges. We proved that this government -- a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people. ...

“This isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.”

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For days now, the Democrats on the Hill have quietly betrayed a growing sense of optimism about passage of the bill, even as they engaged in a variation of Lyndon Johnson-style arm-twisting. And deal-making wioth one noted holdout: Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a conservative Democrat who'd opposed the bill since November because of what he said were loopholes through which elective abortion could be paid for with public funds.

Stupak insisted on and yesterday received a way to make clear his objection to public funds used for abortion: A pending executive order announced by President Obama, meant to shore up his already-stated commitment to maintaining the Hyde Amendment's policy and language restricting federal funds for abortion in the current health-care legislation. Executive Order 13535 was signed after an agreement with Stupak, who’d threatened a no vote against the bill unless such an agreement were obtained.

“We’ve all stood on principle,” Stupak said at a news conference announcing the deal. “We expect the current Hyde language to apply throughout this health-care bill. “[The president] said there will be no federal dollars for abortion. The president has put his commitment in writing. This is a very extensive order, he does not plan on rescinding it.” ...

“We've always said ... that we were for health-care reform, but there was a principle that meant more to us than anything, and that was the sanctity of life.”

There’s some illogic in Stupak’s argument, though: How do you uphold the sanctity of life as an absolute and oppose health-care reform when opposing it likely means dismissing the sanctity of the lives of millions of Americans here already?

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The great thing about the Stupak-brokered agreement — besides the fact that its very existence validates the best deliberative possibilities of American government — is something that burnishes the president’s negotiating bona fides: the agreement that led to Obama’s executive order reflects no compromise of Obama’s own principles on the matter of elective abortion. He’s been on the record as saying that under his health plan, no federal funds would be used or siphoned off, directly or indirectly, to fund non-medically necessary abortions.

That was always non-negotiable. What made the difference for Stupak? What finally put the ball over the goal line? Putting the president’s principle in writing. That’s what this all came down to. It’s like what can happen in a multibillion-dollar business deal with lives and livelihoods on the line by the thousands, a negotiation that goes back and forth forever ... finally settled when one side picks up the tab for the chump change of lawyers’ fees.

The fact of President Obama putting in writing what he’d already stated and supported costs him nothing politically; despite the reflex reaction of pro-choice progressives, the executive order betrays no reversal in his previously stated positions. Compromise is a wonderful thing. Especially when you don’t have to make one.

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Someone on Twitter, hours after the vote: “Dems doing stuff is actually kind of sexy.”

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In her address from the House floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked up on a point about the health-care bill’s passage that’s gone mostly under the radar. It’s nothing you can quantify, and that’s one reason nobody’s paid attention to it. But leave it to a Californian to grasp the ways that legislation, when law, will reawaken a vital aspect of the country's identity.

Free to search for better job opportunities, unburdened by the need to keep a job solely because of the inability to get comparable affordable health insurance somewhere else, the American people will eventually be empowered by an Obama health-care law that revives a basic of the American dynamic: the Freedom to Move, to indulge our passion for change and the new in pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s not something the Congressional Budget Office can score, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

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MSNBC political analyst and tireless conservative apologist Pat Buchanan made only a brief appearance on the air for the vote analysis. His customary on-air bluster was absent. What was more startling: Buchanan, on the air, wearing a bright Democratic sky-blue tie.

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In some perverse way, the timing of all this couldn’t have been better. Coming to a climax as it has seven months, give or take, before the November election, the now settled health-care legislation now has the chance to work its way into the ordinary experience of American life, to become — like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid before it — an everyday companion article, one of the unspoken ubiquitous existential factors of a modern nation.

Quiet as it’s kept, it’s that fact, the everydayness of health-care reform in America, that the Republicans fear the most. Liberated from the jargon and procedure of lawmakers, health care reform and its benefits become accomplished facts of life, not the precursor to Armageddon, not nearly so exotically socialist as the GOP has painted reform for the last fourteen months. That’s hugely problematic for the Republicans.

The conservatives are already vowing a concerted movement to repeal the bill. Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Michelle Bachmann of Michigan are leading the early charge. But besides the fact that a repeal of the legislation just passed by Congress would require (1) the loss of 100+ Democratic seats in the House this November, and (2) the cooperation of the same president who spearheaded the law’s passage in the first place, there’s a more basic reason there’ll be no groundswell of support to repeal this: It’s hard to get people’s heads around the idea of repealing something that hasn’t fully taken effect.

The problem for the Republicans with the idea (already being advanced) of campaigning against health-care reform is huge on so many levels. It’s lousy politics to campaign against things people actually want, like no children being excluded from health insurance for pre-existing conditions, $250 Medicare rebates for seniors, small-business tax credits — things that go into effect the minute Obama signs the bill into law. And most of the rest of the law doesn’t go into effect until 2014. How the hell do you effectively campaign against a theoretical, against something that hasn’t happened yet?

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This kind of American progress is not reversible, and the Republicans know it. Like all the tectonic shifts that move this country forward, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 13th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, from Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, the health-care reform legislation is more the advance of an idea than the advance of a law.

Why? Because for all the claims of its intrusiveness, paradoxically, it’s a law that reaches for where the law doesn’t reach: to the bedside of a dying loved one whose end-of-life care is draining a family’s life savings by the day; to the kitchen table of a laid-off worker, a family breadwinner looking down the barrel of COBRA health insurance payments he can’t possibly afford to pay; to a child’s bedroom, where a couple watch their child sleep and engage, agonized, in the brutally practical calculus of wondering how her rare childhood cancer will be paid for as much as how it will be treated.

“I feel a sense that we're on the side of the angels," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former Freedom Rider and Civil Rights leader. "When historians pick up their pen and write about this period, they will have to say that the majority party forgot about the politics and did the right thing.”

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur got it right too. “The health bill that will move forward today is actually a bill about life — life for all of America’s families, including women and children.”

Then Kaptur put it all together, deep emotion registered with a pause you could drive a Mack truck through. A pause and a statement that said everything:

“It is just so ........ profound to be a part of a moment when we truly move America into the twenty-first century.”

This is a defining moment in our history. This is what change looks like.

Image credits: House vote: Still from C-SPAN. Obama and Biden: Pete Souza, The White House. Bart Stupak: Reuters. Nancy Pelosi: Public domain. Obama bottom: Pool image. Rally in St. Charles, Mo.: Pete Souza, The White House.

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