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Obama signs landmark health bill

From NBC's Athena Jones
In a jubilant ceremony before a packed East Room audience, President Obama today used 20 pens to sign landmark legislation extending health-care coverage to 32 million Americans.

Saying he was signing the bill into law on behalf of his late mother and millions of others who had fought with insurers over coverage, Obama also invoked past leaders who had worked to overhaul the system from the Clintons to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose wife Vicki, son Patrick, and niece Caroline were in the audience.

Also on hand for the event were Democratic leaders from both houses of Congress -- many of whom excitedly posed for pictures with one another before the event began -- HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (whose agency will be in charge of implementing the changes in the bill), and Connie Anderson (the sister of a Ohio woman who became the White House's symbol for ordinary people facing sky-rocketing premiums after writing to the president late last year).

"The bill I'm signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for, and marched for, and hungered to see," the president said. "Our presence here today is remarkable and improbable. With all the punditry, all of the lobbying, all of the game-playing that passes for governing in Washington, it's been easy at times to doubt our ability to do such a big thing, such a complicated thing."

The White House has couched the battle to pass legislation overhauling the nation's health care system in historic terms, comparing it to the fight to pass Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights legislation. Today's ceremony marked a major step, because the health-care bill became law the moment the president signed it, even though the Senate must still take up and pass a package of fixes to it.

The boisterous crowd frequently interrupted the president with applause, chanting "Nancy" when he thanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, cheering loudly for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and giving a standing ovation to Nancy-Ann DeParle, a top health adviser to the president.

After the East Room signing ceremony, the president traveled to the Department of the Interior to deliver a speech on the health care bill before some 600 people, including members of Congress, Cabinet and other administration officials, health-care advocates, doctors, nurses, and people who wrote letters to the president about their health care challenges.

In fact, one of the women who wrote to the president, Dawn Stone, is from Brooklyn, IA, which is some 50 miles from Iowa City, where the president is scheduled to hold a health-care rally on Thursday. Stone and her husband dropped their coverage after losing their jobs and ended up with $100,000 in medical debt after her husband fell ill.

The afternoon speech, which Obama said was to thank supporters of the health-care bill, marked the sixth off-campus event where the president has promoted health care in the past few weeks.

"After a century of striving, after a year of debate after a historic vote, health care reform is no longer an unmet promise, it is the law of the land," he said."

Now that the bill has passed, the White House is focused on selling it to voters since many Democrats who voted for the bill face tough re-election battles in the fall. Obama often describes the legislation as a victory for the American people over insurers and the White House believes the bill's passage could put Democrats in a good place politically if they can explain to voters what their party voted to support -- a ban on lifetime coverage limits, a requirement that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions, prescription-drug help for seniors, expanding coverage -- and what the other side voted against.

"Now let me tell you what change looks like, because those fighting change are still out there, still making a lot of noise about what this reform means," the president said as he laid out these measures and called on people to go to www.whitehouse.gov or any "credible" news organization's website to learn more what the bill will mean for them.

The president said there was still much work to be done to rebuild the economy and improve the education. Among the administration's other big goals are comprehensive immigration and energy legislation, new rules of the road to govern the financial system, and finding ways to mitigate a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing companies to contribute directly to political campaigns.

"We all know our journey is far from over," he said, arguing that passing this legislation was a good step toward those goals. "As we tackle all these other challenges we face, as we continue on this journey, we can take our next steps with new confidence, with a new wind at our backs, because we know it's still possible to do big things in America."