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Obama secures crucial vote in US healthcare battle

Pushed over the finish line by President Barack Obama, and marked by ferocious politicking that lasted late into the night, a bill to reform America's healthcare system is a step closer to reality after being narrowly endorsed in the House of Representatives.

The package, designed to extend medical coverage to 96% of the country, squeaked through by a majority of 220 to 215, shortly after the President publicly implored supporters to “answer the call of history”.

Noisy cheers and high-fives were exchanged on the floor of the chamber at 11.15pm on Saturday, when hours of fractious debate ended with news that the 2,000-page bill had been passed. Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi won praise from the bill's supporters for her relentless work in chivvying recalcitrant members into voting “Yes”. As their victory became clear, some Democrats asked her to sign their copies of the bill.

“This is an historic moment for our nation and for American families,” Ms Pelosi said, comparing the legislation to the passage of social security in 1935. Democratic whips had spent days securing commitments of support from party members and eventually gained the votes of 219 Democrats, together with a lone Republican, Joseph Cao.

The remaining 176 Republicans, with 39 Democrats from the party's conservative wing, opposed the legislation. Mr Cao, who represents a left-leaning district of New Orleans, said he cast his vote after an amendment was passed limiting government funding of abortions.

President Obama hailed the move as “historic”, saying “opportunities like this come around maybe once in a generation”. He said he was “absolutely confident” that the US Senate would now pass its own healthcare bill, allowing him to sign reforms into law in the new year. But Mr Obama's healthcare proposals face a rougher ride in the upper house of Congress, where some conservative Democrats retain reservations that could stymie the bill.

Under the reform, every American citizen will be required to obtain health coverage, or face penalties. All but the smallest employers must cover their workers. A national marketplace will be created, giving people the chance to buy into a government-run “public option” insurance plan if they prefer.

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