WASHINGTON (AP) — Anything but jubilant, President Barack Obama awkwardly kept a promise Wednesday he made to assure passage of historic health care legislation, pledging his administration would not allow the use of federal funds to pay for elective abortions covered by private insurance.
Unlike Tuesday, when a beaming Obama signed the health care law in a nationally televised ceremony interrupted repeatedly by applause, the White House refused to permit coverage of the event. It occurred in the Oval Office in the presence of a small group of anti-abortion Democratic lawmakers who had extracted the commitment over the weekend.
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Obama, a supporter of abortion rights, issued the executive order as Senate Democrats drove toward final passage of a second health care bill, drafted to supplement the first by sweetening benefits for seniors with high prescription drug costs and for lower-to-middle income families who cannot afford the cost of insurance.
The same measure includes a second triumph for the administration on domestic policy. It generally strips banks and other private insurers of their ability to originate loans to students, in favor of direct government lending.
The government’s savings would raise the maximum amount needy students could receive in Pell Grants, and pump about $2.6 billion over a decade into historically black and Hispanic colleges. The changes would mean the loss of billions of dollars for student lending giant Sallie Mae as well as large financial institutions such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.
The bill passed the House on Sunday and it appeared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had as many as 57 votes in hand for its approval, far more than needed. Among 59 Senate Democrats, only Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced in advance they would oppose it.
Far outnumbered, Senate Republicans sought votes on politically-charged proposals that, while potentially troublesome for Democrats, were doomed to defeat.
Among them was a call by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to make sure none of the bill’s tax increases would fall on an individual with annual income of less than $200,000 or a couple with wages of less than $250,000 combined — taxpayers whom the president has vowed to shield.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, offered an amendment to force Obama and others in the government to obtain insurance coverage through new purchasing exchanges created by the law, something the law already stipulates for members of Congress and some staff. The White House responded by issuing a statement saying Obama would enter the exchange voluntarily so Grassley’s amendment was unnecessary.
Obama’s participation as president would be contingent on his getting re-elected in 2012, since the exchanges won’t be up and running until 2014.
Taken together, the day’s events amounted to mop-up actions by the White House and Senate Democrats, one day after Obama signed into law far-reaching changes in the nation’s health care system that had eluded presidents and lawmakers for a century.
At its core, the new law would expand health care to 32 million who lack it while cracking down on the insurance industry and cutting federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade. Most of the estimated $940 billion cost of the bill would pay for assistance to help families with annual incomes of up to $88,000 pay for insurance, although small businesses would also receive subsidies as in incentive to offer coverage to their employees.
The two bills combined call for nearly $1 trillion in higher taxes and Medicare cuts over 10 years, provisions that sparked strong opposition from congressional Republicans, all of whom voted against the bill’s passage.
For the first time, millions of Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused.
That requirement was at the heart of much of the opposition to the legislation by Republicans, conservatives activists and others, and 13 attorneys generals have already filed suit to try to invalidate the law.
The Democrats’ drive to enact sweeping health care changes had appeared doomed as recently as two months ago, when Obama took personal command of a revival effort, working in concert with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid.
Passage wasn’t assured until Sunday, a few hours before the final vote, when Obama agreed to issue an executive order specifying that he would not permit the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother was in danger.
The commitment, backed up by a draft of the order that circulated, was enough to secure the votes of Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. and a few other holdouts.
As signed into law, the health care bill says individuals who receive federal subsidies to purchase insurance may purchase abortion coverage, but must do so by writing a separate check from personal funds. Obama’s executive order commits the administration to issuing regulations making sure that personal and federal funds are kept separate.