Scenes from the Capitol in the final showdown over health care reform.

Scenes from the Capitol in the final showdown over health care reform.

Scenes from the Capitol in the final showdown over health care reform.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 22 2010 1:19 AM

It's Been Real

Scenes from the Capitol in the final showdown over health care reform.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds holds her weekly press conference. Click image to expand.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

12:32 a.m.—Barely a minute had passed after the final vote on health care reform before members of Congress started streaming out of the Capitol. Republicans mostly kept their heads down. But a few Democrats dallied—partly to gloat, partly to pre-empt the electoral doomsayers.

"I feel more than gratified," said Rep. John Lewis. "I feel like we're on the side of the angels."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., described Sunday's vote as just the first step in a Democratic surge. "If we pass this and regulatory reform, this notion that liberals have to stay home in November becomes much less plausible."

Republicans focused their frustration on Rep. Bart Stupak, whose switch from "no" to "yes" after President Obama promised to sign an executive order prohibiting federal money from being spent on abortions pushed the Democrats over the 216-vote threshold. "Stupak has to explain why he's no longer pro-life," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as he exited the chamber. At one point during Stupak's floor speech, someone shouted, "Babykiller." Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., who was presiding as speaker at the time, said he saw who shouted it but preferred not to snitch. "Members have a right to make an idiot of themselves once without being identified," he said.

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Lewis, who reportedly had racial epithets shouted at him by anti-reform protesters over the weekend, declined to focus on the anger over health care reform: "When historians pick up their pens to write the history of this period, they'll say a major party forgot about politics and did the right thing."

11:12 p.m.—Everyone knew the votes were there. And they were: The Senate health care bill passed the House on Sunday night, 219-212.

The final speeches by party leaders were therefore less about swaying votes one way or another than putting a final stamp on the legislation.

Republicans chided their Democratic colleagues for flouting the will of the American people. "Some say we're making history," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "I think we're breaking history."

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Democrats invoked history, too. "This is the Civil Rights Act of the 21st Century," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi compared the vote to the historic passage of Medicare and Medicaid.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor criticized the Democrats' failure to achieve bipartisanship: "The only bipartisanship has been in opposition," he said. He also claimed the bill would drive up the cost of health care, use federal funds to pay for abortions, and pile debt onto future generations. (The CBO says the bill will reduce the deficit by more than $1 trilllion over two decades.)

Pelosi thanked President Obama and Edward Kennedy in her speech. She predicted that reform would "unleash an entrepreneurial spirit" in America. (Republicans laughed.) She got philosophical about what brought Democrats to this vote, riffing on an earlier line from Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.: "We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us."

Minority Leader John Boehner used his time to deride the process that led to the bill's passage. "Can you say it was done out in the open?" he asked. His rhetorical device at times backfired. "Do you really believe that if you like your health care plan, you can keep it?" "Yes!" shouted Democrats. Boehner fired back, "You can't!" "Yes we can!" yelled Democrats.

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When the vote tally reached 216, a cheer went up stage right. Democrats hugged and kissed. Republicans stood with crossed arms. It didn't take long for Democrats to settle on their victory chant: "Yes we can!"

AP Video: The House vote to pass health care reform.

6:48 p.m.—Finally, a vote on health care. The "rule for debate" has now passed the House, 224-206. That doesn't necessarily mean the health care bill itself will pass by that margin, but it's a sign that 224 Democrats don't mind moving the process forward. Twenty-eight Democrats voted against it.

Now begins two hours of debate: one for Democrats, one for Republicans.

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6:10 p.m.—The historic passage of health care reform may be an exciting moment, but Congress seems determined to make the process as unexciting as possible.

Hence the various "suspension" bills being brought to the floor in the middle of the health care debate. The purported reason for suspension bills is to consider important issues facing the American people, such as naming post offices. The real reason is to give the Democrats time to whip votes and plot out strategy, while at the same time making sure members don't leave the building.

A sampling of the bills Congress is pausing everything to consider:

  • H.R. 4840—To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1979 Cleveland Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, as the "Clarence D. Lumpkin Post Office."
  • H.Res. 1174—Supporting the goals and ideals of National Women's History Month.
  • H.Res. 1075—Commending the members of the Agri-business Development Teams of the National Guard for their efforts, together with personnel of the Department of Agriculture and the United States Agency for International Development, to modernize agriculture practices and increase food production in war-torn countries.
  • H.Res. 1099—Recognizing the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
  • H.Res. 925—Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the meritorious service performed by aviators in the United States Armed Forces who were shot down over, or otherwise forced to land in, hostile territory yet evaded enemy capture or were captured but subsequently escaped.
  • H.Res. 900—Supporting the goals and ideals of a Cold War Veterans Recognition Day to honor the sacrifices and contributions made by members of the Armed Forces during the Cold War and encouraging the people of the United States to participate in local and national activities honoring the sacrifices and contributions of those individuals.
  • H.Res. 1119—Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that all people in the United States should participate in a moment of silence to reflect upon the service and sacrifice of members of the United States Armed Forces both at home and abroad 

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As a result, it's past 6 p.m. and Congress is only now voting to approve the rules for debate—a vote that was originally scheduled to occur around 2 p.m. At this rate, Steny Hoyer may have to TiVo The Pacific.

5:16 p.m.—If you believe everything you read, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., spent the first half of Sunday frantically changing his position on health care. MSNBC says he's a yes! The Hill says he's a no! CNN says yes! Nancy Pelosi says she's not sure!

That suspense quickly dissipated at 4 p.m. today, when Stupak announced that he would be voting for the bill and that his coalition of anti-abortion Democrats would likely push Nancy Pelosi over the 216-vote threshold necessary to pass the bill.

"We are well past 216," he told reporters at a press conference. The final straw: A promise by President Obama to sign an executive order prohibiting federal funds from being spent on abortion in the health care exchanges.

The crowd outside, however, wasn't buying it. Ben Grace of Culpeper, Va., took issue with the notion that Obama can control federal funds by executive order. "If he can sign an executive order knocking down that law, why can't he do that for any law he wants?"

Other protesters acknowledged that the bill would pass but argued that the consequences will be severe. "I think it could get really ugly," said Leslie Howard-Redwik of Knox, Ind. "Like, in a National Guard sense." Grace pointed out that his home state of Virginia has promised to sue the federal government, claiming it can't force people to buy health insurance. Another thing that bothers Grace: The prospect of the federal government accessing his health records. "If my doctor divulges this, I'll sue his pants off," he says.

When news of Stupak's switch reached the protesters, a new chant erupted: "We want Stupak!"

4:25 p.m. WASHINGTON—Chaos reigns at the Capitol. It's just hard to say whether it's crazier outside the building or inside.

As House Democrats began the final slog toward voting on health care reform—an 11-step process that began at noon Sunday—protesters gathered on the Capitol's south lawn, waving signs and chanting, "Kill the bill!" and "Naaaaancy!" Republican members of Congress periodically emerged and waved from the balcony, to cheers. Rep. Steve King, R-N.Y., dangled a "Don't Tread on Me" flag, while another Republican held up a giant "No!" sign. Some Democrats braved the hordes, as well: Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., ventured out and got booed. Earlier, Nancy Pelosi linked arms with the Democratic leadership and Rep. John Lewis and walked across the Capitol plaza while protesters called her "a disgrace to your office."

The scene inside the Capitol wasn't much saner. Soon after members of Congress first started filing into the chamber, a protester leapt up and started shouting, "Kill the bill! The people said no!" As security ushered him out, at least a dozen Republicans cheered from the floor. Later, Rules Committee Chairwoman Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., got into a shouting match with Rep. David Drier, D-Calif., over who held the floor, while the speaker, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., repeatedly slammed his gavel.

The legislative process seemed almost designed to maximize the insanity. First, the House has to vote on the "rule" that determined how the rest of the votes would proceed. (As of 4:30, they were still debating the rule.) After that, debate begins on the Senate health care bill, followed by a vote, followed by debate on the reconciliation bill, followed by a vote. All told, we're looking at about 12 hours of yelling, chanting, and grandstanding—both on the floor and off. Check back here for more.

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