If you had to sum up 2009 congressional politics with one topic, healthcare would be the hands-down winner. From a White House roundtable discussion in March to often testy exchanges on the House and Senate floors in rare weekend votes this fall, lawmakers devoted 2009 to a philosophical debate over how best to cure the nation's medical ills.
The debate forced the nation to consider such concepts as a government-run insurance option and mandates requiring the purchase of insurance under threat of penalty. And abortion took over the healthcare battles as pro-life Democrats succeeded in barring the federal funding of abortion under the House healthcare bill. They failed to secure similar language in the Senate legislation.
Both parties agreed that rising healthcare costs is a problem in dire need of fixing. But the Democrats' answer came in a 2,074-page, nearly $1 trillion Senate plan and a 1,990-page $894 billion House bill-both bursting with new taxes on individuals, businesses, and providers. By December just 38 percent of Americans supported reform. Such numbers suggest a gradual understanding of what is at the real center of this debate: whether bigger government is the answer to the nation's healthcare problems.
Democrats began 2009 with 58 Senate seats, a substantial lead over Republicans but still two votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority. Then came Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's April surprise: "I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans." Specter, elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1980, accurately foresaw that he faced a stiff GOP primary challenge for his 2010 reelection push. "We're thrilled to have you," President Obama told Specter on behalf of Democrats. Then with Democrats just one seat shy of 60 came the June announcement that Democrat Al Franken had won the Minnesota Senate seat over incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast. Comedian Franken had become Sen. Franken, but few conservatives were laughing: Democrats had their 60 and a near impenetrable majority.
On President Obama's third day in office he began a rollback of long-standing pro-life policies. With the anniversary of Roe v. Wade at hand, Obama announced he would reverse the executive order known as the "Mexico City Policy," which barred abortion advocacy by overseas groups receiving U.S. funds. In February, he reversed a Bush-enacted federal regulation offering conscience protections to healthcare professionals who are morally opposed to performing certain procedures. In March, he targeted stem cells, lifting President Bush's limits on the federal funding of stem-cell research and rescinding a Bush executive order that prohibited funding of embryonic stem cells. That month he also reinstated funding of the UN's population fund, UNFPA, halted by Congress and past presidents over UNFPA's ongoing support of China's one-child policy. U.S. contribution to UNFPA in 2009: $50 million. UNFPA spending in China: $6.8 million. A 2009 investigation by the Population Research Institute found evidence of ongoing forced sterilizations and forced abortions in counties of China considered "models" of family planning by UNFPA.
The year began poorly for the defenders of traditional marriage: The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in April that denying same-sex couples the ability to marry "does not substantially further any important government objective." Iowa joined four others in allowing gay marriage-Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Each did so through the courts or legislature, not by a popular vote. In November, proponents of traditional marriage got their vote: Maine became the 31st state to reject the legalization of same-sex marriage by referendum. The vote in the traditionally liberal Northeastern state shocked gay marriage advocates, who thought Maine would be the first where voters would approve such laws.