WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) – President Barack Obama sealed a hard-fought victory on Tuesday by signing into law a landmark healthcare reform measure that will help shape his legacy and the Democrats’ chances of holding power in the U.S. Congress.
“We have now just enshrined… the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their healthcare,” Obama said in a ceremony in the jammed East Room of the White House.
“And it is an extraordinary achievement that has happened because of all of you and because of all the advocates all across the country.”
After signing the bill — designed to revamp the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry — Obama was to attend another ceremony as he launched in a publicity blitz that he and his fellow Democrats hope will overcome widespread public doubts and confusion about the plan.
Obama put his reputation on the line and poured his energy into passing the bill, even delaying a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia.
Aides have described a euphoric atmosphere at the White House after the House on Sunday narrowly approved the healthcare legislation, which analysts had pronounced all but dead only a few weeks earlier.
The overhaul will extend health coverage to 32 million Americans, expand the government health plan for the poor, impose new taxes on the wealthy and bar insurance practices like refusing cover to people with pre-existing medical conditions.
The Senate is taking up a package of changes that the House of Representatives proposed to improve the $940 billion overhaul program, but Democratic leaders say they are confident they have the votes to push them through.
Obama’s intense focus on the issue drew criticism from some Democrats who worried healthcare was becoming a distraction from the need to fix the economy and boost jobs.
The bill’s passage will free him to devote time to that and other priorities, including pushing for congressional approval of a plan to reform and tighten financial regulations.
Republicans say their anger over the bill’s passage may make them less likely to work with Democrats on other items such as climate change legislation and immigration reform.
But with a major accomplishment in hand, Obama will be able to counter critics who have suggested he had little to show for his 14 months in office.
Americans have been lukewarm toward healthcare reform and Republicans hope to capitalize on that in November’s congressional elections, in which they hope to overturn or at least reduce Democratic majorities in the Senate and House.
Republicans also have vowed to try to repeal the healthcare bill.