A jubilant US President Barack Obama signed the most sweeping US social policy legislation in decades into law on Tuesday, putting his name on a healthcare bill that will help shape his legacy and the Democrats’ chances of holding on to power in Congress.
“We have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their healthcare,” Obama said in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, with Democratic members of Congress and other supporters cheering.
Fourteen states quickly filed suit in federal court to challenge the law, arguing that it undercuts states’ rights, and congressional Republicans, who had unanimously opposed the bill, vowed to keep fighting it.
Designed to revamp the US$2.5 trillion US healthcare industry, the law will extend health insurance to 32 million Americans who currently have none. It will bar practices like insurers refusing coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions, expand the Medicaid government health insurance program for the poor and impose new taxes on the wealthy.
The law will require people to obtain health coverage, impose fines on those who don’t and provide federal subsidies to help low and middle-income families afford the insurance.
Republicans fought bitterly but failed to prevent Democrats in Congress from passing the bill on Sunday. Republicans hope public skepticism over the measure will help them regain control of Congress in November’s elections.
The Senate began debating a package of changes aimed at improving the US$940 billion overhaul. Republicans have vowed to fight those changes, but Democratic leaders say they are confident they have the votes to pass the package.
Democrats are using special budget rules that allow a simple 51 vote majority to pass the package instead of the 60 usually needed in the 100-member Senate to approve controversial bills. Republicans have vowed a flurry of amendments to alter the package and force it back to the House of Representatives for another vote.
State attorneys general — all but one of them Republicans — filed two separate suits challenging the law on the grounds that it violates states’ rights enshrined in the US Constitution. Thirteen sued in Florida minutes after Obama signed the bill. Virginia brought its own case.
The US Justice Department will “vigorously defend” the new healthcare law and is “confident that this statute is constitutional,” spokesman Charles Miller said in a statement.
Critics said Congress lacks authority to require people to purchase health insurance.
“It forces people to do something — in the sense of buying a health care policy or paying a penalty, a tax or a fine — that simply the Constitution does not allow Congress to do,” said Florida Attorney-General Bill McCollum, a Republican who is running for governor.
Republicans vowed to make the new law a major campaign issue in the upcoming congressional elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican campaign slogan for November would be “repeal and replace,” acknowledging that many feel that at least some change is needed to the current costly healthcare system.
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