A bill reforming America's health care system, what one Bay Area congressman called "a critical step," was approved Sunday night by the U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton) 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."
Sunday night's vote was the culmination of about a year of debate in Congress, where both the House and Senate passed versions of the bill. 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.
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.
Congressman John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek) said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) 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.
Garamendi was elected to office in November, just days before the House passed their version of the bill.
He said "it's been a struggle" between then and Sunday night's vote, and that Sunday "was a long day, but worth it" to pass legislation that he said was among the most important that 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 of Lafayette, who is vice chairman 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 McNerney as a legislator who could lose his seat as a result of voting for the bill.
About 300 conservative protesters gathered Friday on the Foothill Road overpass to I-580 to voice their disapproval of the bill, and about 50 gathered there again Sunday. Another group with signs and banners supporting health care stood in front of McNerney's office on Stoneridge Mall Road.
Bud Warder, a member of the Danville-based Conservative Support Group, was at the anti-health care measure 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 pushed the bill through without properly studying the consequences and that Democrats will 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 happened today."
President Obama spoke from the White House after Sunday night's votes and praised the House on their 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."
McNerney said that the measure passed Sunday night "tackles our most pressing health care challenges and is a critical first step. It will slow out of control health care costs and fight back against insurance company abuses."
In a message to constituents after the House vote, McNerney said that the reform package is fiscally responsible and will cut the deficit by $143 billion in the first 10 years and $1.2 trillion in the second decade
He said: "For nine months, I've been listening to our community's thoughts and ideas on health care reform. I've held public events that hundreds of people have attended and have met with seniors, patients, veterans, small business owners, doctors, and nurses. Thousands of people have also emailed, written letters, and called my office.
"I've heard from people denied health coverage for preexisting conditions like diabetes and allergies. I've met seniors who can't afford the monthly cost of prescription drugs. I've talked with small businesses owners who have been forced to lay off employees because of skyrocketing premiums. I've heard many heartbreaking stories about the struggle so many Americans face right now to afford health care.
"I've carefully reviewed the proposal, read every page, and listened to all the input that the people I represent have offered. Throughout this process, I've stood up for reform that will lower costs, give families security and peace-of-mind, and make sure people can choose their doctor and care.
"Today, we took a critical step towards making health care more affordable for American families and helping to guarantee our nation's long-term economic prosperity. Reforming health care is a fiscally responsible course of action that will build on the best of the American system by making sure people can keep their current insurance if they like it and choose what doctors they want see.
"Reform will reduce the growth of health care costs by creating fair, transparent and competitive health insurance markets and cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse. It will improve benefits for seniors, help small businesses to stay open, and stop insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or kicking sick people off their plans."