With 3 votes to spare, Clyburn revels in health care triumph

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2010 

WASHINGTON — House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn achieved the most significant legislative triumph of his congressional career Sunday evening as the House passed a historic health care bill extending insurance to more than 30 million Americans.

Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, ended a week that he said was the most exhausting of his 17-plus years in Congress by finally corralling 219 votes — three more than the minimum needed — for the House of Representatives to pass the landmark legislation.

"We have debated this issue for several generations," Clyburn said on the House floor at 9:30 p.m. "The time has come to act. This is the Civil Rights Act of the 21st Century."

Nearly 90 minutes later, the House voted 219-212 to approve the health-care measure, with 34 Democrats joining all 178 Republicans in opposing it.

Earlier Sunday, Clyburn reflected on his success.

"This is a very satisfying moment," Clyburn told reporters shortly before the House voted 224-206 to approve rules he had helped establish for debating and then voting on the health care measure. That vote presaged final passage of the bill later Sunday.

"I don't know how people felt when they passed Social Security or Medicare, or when the civil rights laws of the 1960s were passed, but I do believe that what we are doing with this legislation is establishing health care as a fundamental right in this country," Clyburn said.

A decisive moment came Sunday when Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and other anti-abortion Democrats said they'd vote for the health care legislation.

Clyburn said his close friendship with Stupak helped the two men hammer out their differences over abortion.

"Bart Stupak and I spent a lot of time together last evening," Clyburn said Sunday on CBS before the showdown in the House.

Clyburn helped broker an executive order that President Barack Obama issued Sunday stating that the health measure would comply with a long-standing ban on federal funding of abortions.

The votes Sunday capped a whirlwind week for Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress.

During a succession of 16-hour workdays, Clyburn met one on one with uncommitted colleagues. He joined strategy sessions with other Democratic leaders. He helped host Obama at the Capitol for a rousing speech to Democratic lawmakers. He gave numerous TV interviews.

"It was tough," Clyburn said as the yearlong quest to enact health care reforms neared an end. "This may sound strange, but I've enjoyed every moment of it."

At 4:40 p.m. Sunday, when it became clear that the last hurdles before the Democratic health care bill had been removed, Clyburn smiled broadly as CNN's Wolf Blitzer congratulated him on his pending success.

For Clyburn, 69, the worst moment came Saturday when Tea Party activists shouted "nigger" at Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, spit at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri and called Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts a "faggot."

"The last time I saw anything like that was back in 1960," Clyburn told CBS. "I celebrated a week ago the 50th anniversary of the march in Orangeburg, the so-called Orangeburg Seven, of which I was one."

Clyburn recalled that last week he and two other former civil rights protesters went to Claflin University, a historically black school in Orangeburg, and spoke about their roles in the 1960 lunch counter sit-in in that city.

"We were telling those students how this kind of stuff was behind us," Clyburn told CBS. "I suspect that I might have to modify some of that after (the slurs Saturday)."

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters later Sunday, Clyburn ticked off key developments in the difficult final days leading up to the House votes:

— Intense negotiations with Stupak and other anti-abortion lawmakers, and Obama's executive order on abortion.

— Obama's full engagement in a series of White House meetings with wavering Democrats and at speeches around the country where he rallied support for the health care bill.

Clyburn said he met with Obama in early March and urged him to become more actively involved in the health care fight in order to overcome loud opposition from Republicans.

"I said, 'Mr. President, the will exists in our (Democratic) caucus to do this," Clyburn recalled. "'You and I as well as our other leaders have got to work together to find a way to do it.'"

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