A bill reforming America's health care system, what one Bay Area congressman said was "one of the most important bills in the past 40 years," was approved Sunday night by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Both the House and Senate passed versions of the bill, marking the culmination of about a year of debate in Congress. The House voted 219-212 in favor of the Senate's version of the bill, which will now go to President Obama's desk to be signed, after the Senate acts on changes in a "reconciliation bill" passed by the House.
The House also passed by a 220-211 vote a reconciliation bill containing changes to the Senate bill that will go back to that chamber for approval.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met with the Democratic House Caucus recently and he "assured us that he had more than enough votes to pass the corrections in the Senate."
Garamendi and other local Democratic lawmakers lauded the passage of the bill, which is estimated to increase health care coverage to about 32 million uninsured Americans through provisions such as mandates requiring people to get health care and the barring of insurance companies from excluding customers with pre-existing conditions.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), a senior member of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Energy and Commerce Committee, invoked both Theodore Roosevelt and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in her praise of the bill's passage.
"More than a century has passed since Teddy Roosevelt first called for health care reform. Today we have finally kept our promise to the American people that they will have affordable health insurance which they cannot lose or have taken away from them if they become ill," she said in an e-mail.
She said it makes economic sense: "The U.S. spends more on health care than any other country in the world and the costs are crippling to our economy. This legislation will reduce the deficit by a whopping $143 billion over ten years and $1.2 trillion over 20 years, the single largest deficit-reduction plan in 25 years.
"It will eliminate discriminatory insurance practices and it will open the insurance market to millions of Americans who have been priced-out.
"I believe that by voting for this legislation, I am standing on the right side of history. Our achievement is also a tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy. His unwavering commitment to decent health care for all Americans paved the way for this landmark legislation and today's historic vote."
Garamendi was elected to office in November, just days before the House passed its version of the bill.
He said "it's been a struggle" between then and tonight's vote. Sunday "was a long day, but worth it" to pass legislation he said was among the most important Congress has dealt with in the past few decades.
Before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said approving the bill would "make history for our country, and progress for the American people."
Pelosi recalled the Declaration of Independence in her argument for the bill, saying, "We are endowed with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This legislation will lead to healthier lives, and more liberty to pursue lives and dreams of happiness."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said to the House before the vote that Democrats are voting "for all those people that deserve health care but just can't afford it."
No Republicans voted for the bill, which was criticized by local conservatives who said it will increase the country's budget deficit and cause further intrusion by the federal government into people's lives.
Tom Del Baccaro, a Lafayette man who is vice chair of the California Republican Party, said rather than end the debate on health care the passage of the bill will inflame the issue and cause voters to go against Democrats in upcoming elections.
The bill "will be a nightmare for the Democrats ... to deal with because these costs and the deficit will be so out of control," he said.
Del Baccaro cited Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, is a legislator who could lose his seat as a result of voting for the bill.
About 300 conservative protesters gathered Friday near McNerney's office in Pleasanton on the Foothill Road overpass to Interstate Highway 580 to voice disapproval of the bill, and about 50 gathered there again Sunday.
Bud Warder, a member of the Danville-based Conservative Support Group, was at Sunday's rally and said the protesters appear to have the support of the general public based on reactions by people driving by the group.
"We have a bird-to-'atta boy' ratio, where when we show our signs and try to listen to the reaction from motorists, if we get a (middle) finger or a 'Way to go' and clapping," Warder said.
"About a year ago (during a similar rally) it was probably 10 to 1 birds to 'atta boys,' but here today the ratio was more like 7 to 1 in the opposite direction," he said.
Warder said Congress was pushing the bill through without properly studying the consequences, and that Democrats would pay the price at the polls.
"How can you vote for something that we doubt you understand?," he said. "We have the support of the people, and people are not going to forget what happens today."
McNerney said in a statement following the bill's passage that he "carefully reviewed the proposal, read every page, and listened to all the input that the people I represent have offered."
He said the vote "took a critical step towards making health care more affordable for American families and helping to guarantee our nation's long term economic prosperity."
President Obama spoke from the White House after Sunday night's votes and praised the House on its action.
"We didn't give in to mistrust or to cynicism or to fear," he said. "Instead, we proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges."