The date was July 27, 1965. Congress was on the verge of passing one of the biggest pieces of social legislation in U.S. history, a bill that would ensure the elderly access to healthcare. For more than a year, Republicans, led by Wisconsin's John Byrnes, had fought against it. In fact, for nearly 20 years by that point, many critics of Medicare, as the new program would be called, had denounced the idea as socialist. But on the day of the vote, the screaming stopped. Republicans knew that Democrats had locked up the votes they needed. Byrnes told his colleagues to bury "any disagreement or animosities" and "do their utmost to make the program work as well as possible." Though he thought the bill was bad, he voted for it nonetheless, a collegial notion that no doubt seems dated today.
However one feels about the current healthcare legislation in Washington, the past week was similarly historic. After scrambling, at President Obama's urging, to find yes votes for the healthcare bill the Senate passed last December, the House approved it, along with a package of tweaks, late Sunday night.
In today's Washington, and in Sunday's vote, there was no John Byrnes. No Republicans voted for the bill, and none are expected to support it now that it's passed. In this partisan environment, in this age of sound bites transmitted to millions of people in real time and repeated over and over again, no Republicans were expected to bury their "disagreement or animosities," and none has. Last week, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, thumping a copy of the bill against the lectern, complained, "This should not be passed by anyone unless they eat it." His colleague, Georgia's Phil Gingrey, warned of the implications for the elections in November: "I think the Democrats will get slaughtered for it."
Republicans focused for much of the week on the Democrats' last-minute legislative tactics, going so far as to claim that the maneuvers House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was considering to pass the bill had never been used before in Congress. Democrats, of course, disagreed. In the end, to outsiders, this all probably sounded like coma-inducing inside baseball.
But as the history of the Medicare bill's passage suggests, these final days are never easy, even when bipartisanship exists, as it did to a much greater degree in 1965. Back then, the House and Senate were wrangling over a final version of the legislation, and a number of Senate Democrats were upset with their House colleagues for rejecting so many of their ideas. "Frankly, I have sometimes gained the impression that [some of the House members] would be opposed, if they had the opportunity, to the great compromise, even, that brought this Union into being," complained Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat. And that was just Democrats against Democrats.
In the run-up to last night's vote, opponents lobbed a final volley. The insurance industry, under attack from the White House for rapidly rising premiums, ran a full-page ad in last Tuesday's Wall Street Journal complaining that Democrats' health reform won't lower costs. This approach was nothing new, either. In 1965, as legislators worked to complete a bill, the American Medical Association took out 100 newspaper ads to warn against "the beginning of socialized medicine." The head of the AMA then took his case to America's living rooms in a prime-time TV infomercial. Ultimately, the ads and the television spot failed; Medicare passed primarily because Democrats bolstered their majority by winning more than 40 House seats in the 1964 elections. As Sunday's vote demonstrated, Democrats have their overwhelming legislative majority, however fractured it may be, to thank, too. But no Republicans.
- See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren't) in the healthcare bill.
- See photos from the final week of the healthcare debate.
- See a slide show of the 10 keys to an Obama comeback.