WASHINGTON-After a long March 21 afternoon beneath the House side of the U.S. Capitol, thousands of frustrated demonstrators began to disperse. They seemed to sense that their nearly year-long effort to defeat the healthcare overhaul had begun to wilt under Washington's spring sun.
But a few lingered long enough to try a final silent protest. In a human formation they merged to spell a simple but desperate message to the lawmakers inside: "No."
A few hours later, lawmakers ignored that plea and approved a healthcare bill that ushers in what President Barack Obama later called a "new season in America."
That Sunday began with the House voting to name some post office after someone named Clarence D. Lumpkin and ended some 11 hours later with a vote recognizing the Battle of Iwo Jima's 65th anniversary.
But sandwiched in-between those votes, 219 representatives, all Democrats, voted to remake one-sixth of the U.S. economy. And when, less than 48 hours later, Obama signed into law the almost $1 trillion healthcare measure, his signature brought greater government intrusion into the lives of Americans.
Before Sunday's historic vote, Democrats tried to connect their healthcare push to the Civil Rights movement, walking linked arm in arm from the House office complex to the Capitol.
"We are doing this for the American people," proclaimed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "You're doing this TO the American people," a protestor answered.
Democrats may have dismissed the human "no" spelled out on the Capitol lawn on their march to pass one of the most sweeping social legislations in the nation's history. But the new law seems to mark just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end in the healthcare war-only seven minutes after Obama signed the healthcare bill into law, attorneys general from 13 states sued the federal government. They declared that Washington has overreached by forcing citizens, for the first time in the nation's history, to buy a particular product.
"The Constitution nowhere authorizes the United States to mandate, either directly or under threat of penalty, that all citizens and legal residents have qualifying healthcare coverage," the lawsuit states, referring to a provision in the new law requiring Americans to carry health insurance or pay a fine. A 14th state, Virginia, filed its own lawsuit.
"I think the Constitution is being walked on at this moment, and many in the Congress right now don't care," Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said on C-SPAN. He added that if this new mandate is upheld, then there might be no limit to what the federal government can regulate.
The lawsuits claim the healthcare law violates the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which gives states powers not explicitly bestowed to the federal government. While the Constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, opponents of the new law argue that a person who decides not to buy something is not engaging in commerce.
"It seems like we have two Constitutions, Madison and Jefferson's and Obama and Biden's," Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center think tank, told me. He said James Madison intended federal powers to be few and defined.
The lawsuits' prospects? "I don't have much trust in the people who act like deities in black robes," worries Boldin. But the attorneys general are vowing to take their lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court. It's a battle that will likely take years, and may not be decided before the mandates take effect in 2014.
Not waiting for the lengthy court process, Virginia and Idaho have already opened up another front in what is now becoming a states-rights battle: Both have passed legislation to block mandates in the law. The Virginia law, which passed its Democratic-controlled Senate, says no resident can be forced to purchase coverage or to pay a penalty for not purchasing insurance. Arizona voters face a ballot measure in November asking voters to declare the state exempt from the law's requirements. Similar ballot pushes are underway in Florida, Michigan, and Colorado. In total, 36 state legislators have introduced measures to limit or oppose the new federal healthcare law.
State leaders are fearful that they won't be able to afford the new law: Florida predicts that 1.3 million people will be added to its Medicaid lists at a cost of an additional $1 billion a year by 2019. "I think this is really on thin ice," Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican, told Fox News. "States are getting fed up. We weren't even at the table in any of these discussions."
Even a Democratic governor, Tennessee's Phil Bredesen, worries that his state will not be able to pay the estimated $1.1 billion five-year bill to do what the new law requires. "These are hard dollars and make the management of our finances post-recession even more daunting," Bredesen wrote in a letter to his Tennessee congressional delegation.
The Tenth Amendment Center's Boldin sees greater hope in the state law approach. The federal government has delayed three times since its 2005 enactment the implementation of another mandate, the REAL ID Act that imposes federal standards on state drivers licenses, because so many states simply have refused to comply.
While states gear up their responses, current and hopeful congressional Republicans have unleashed their own post-healthcare rallying cry: repeal.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has already unveiled legislation to repeal the law. A dozen other Republican senators joined DeMint as co-sponsors on the bill's first day. "This fight isn't over yet," said DeMint.
But it didn't take long for Republicans to tweak that message. Fearing that they would continue to be branded as "the party of no," GOP lawmakers, who also acknowledge that healthcare needs fixing, are now calling for a "repeal and replace" strategy. Some are also talking up "reveal"-wanting more Americans to know what's in the legislation.
To succeed at anything, Republicans will need more bodies in Congress. That is why dozens of GOP challengers across the nation wasted no time going on the offensive after the overhaul passed.
"I promise the very first act I will take as a congressman will be to repeal this trillion-dollar, job-killing, healthcare damaging legislation," Republican Rob Russo, seeking to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Jim Himes in Connecticut's 4th District, announced in a press release hours after the House vote. Candidates from states including Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Idaho and Florida made similar pledges.
"This fall's elections will be a referendum on Obamacare," the Heritage Foundation's Brian Darling told me.
But even if Republicans manage to take back majorities in both the House and Senate-no small task-any repeal legislation would face an Obama veto. That is why Darling says Republicans in Congress would work to delay its implementation by defunding key elements of the healthcare program in must-pass appropriation bills.
"If Republicans control Congress, they control the power of the purse," Darling said.
Obama seems to sense this: He took to the road on March 25, stopping in Iowa City for an unusual pep rally for a bill that has already become law. Expect more such trips. As Democrats try to sell the changes, Republicans feel they have an advantage in the public-relations battle because most of the law's entitlements don't kick in for a few years while most of its new taxes start sooner.
Overhaul advocates have already launched a $5 million ad campaign to promote the new law in 40 congressional districts where Democrats are vulnerable. This blitz took a hit late in the week as the nation learned that top Hill staffers, many of whom sit on the very committees that wrote the bill, are exempt from the new government-run insurance exchanges it creates. Expect additional backlash as more of the 2,309-page bill is decoded.
As lawmakers gathered in the White House's East Room for the ceremony signing the measure into law, they serenaded Obama with chants of "fired up" and "ready to go." But those same chants could be attributed to conservative groups and lawmakers who are not willing to wave the healthcare white flag. Obama said the law puts a "new wind at our backs because we know it's still possible to do big things in America."
But those very words, "big things," are what has many conservatives fearful of increased government regulatory overreach in environment, energy, education, and financial reform.
That is why the overhaul's passage has at least one silver lining for Republicans: It firms up what has been a somewhat tenuous relationship with the growing Tea Party movement. Media accounts have been quick to write off the movement after it lost on healthcare. Even though the U.S. Capitol police made no arrests that day, words like hideous, clowns, and disgraceful were used by liberals to depict the Sunday protests leading up to the House's climactic vote.
But Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said the healthcare defeat has energized, not deflated the movement. New members of his group have been signing up online at a rate of 1,000 an hour since the bill became law.
"They have been trying to force our premature obituary since February of last year," Meckler told me. "Tell me how that is working out for them in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts."
Americans on both sides of the healthcare debate will not forget this vote. It is a defining moment for the president, the Congress, and the country. Indeed, the political landscape has changed: This is a tipping-point moment that triggers a major redistribution of wealth. Millions (some with salaries as high as $88,000) will soon be brought onto government-run and taxpayer-financed insurance programs.
Thomas Jefferson believed that "great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities." The Social Security Act of 1935 passed with support from 76 percent of the minority Senate Republicans and 84 percent of House Republicans. Congress created Medicare in 1965 with support from 43 percent of Senate Republicans and 51 percent of House Republicans. But, in healthcare, zero congressional Republicans voted for the final bill.
"Some say we're making history," explains Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "I say we're breaking history."
Immediately after the House passed its healthcare overhaul, Republicans tried to add stricter language preventing the federal funding of abortion. But one Democrat stood up and took the opposition's lead: "This motion is really to politicize life, not prioritize life," the Democrat said to an eventual House floor standing ovation from his party.
Who was it that rallied 232 Democrats to vote down the pro-life protections? Rep. Bart Stupak, the very author of the amendment that had passed the House last November.
This time around Stupak opposed his own measure because earlier in the day he announced that President Barack Obama would sign an executive order to affirm existing law that bars the federal funding of abortions. Six pro-life Democrats joined Stupak in now supporting the overhaul, providing the measure with last-minute momentum and essentially giving the bill its seven-vote victory margin. (Only one pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, stood his ground and opposed the overhaul because of abortion.)
But groups on both sides of the debate agreed the order, which the federal courts would likely strike down, was a meaningless charade that provided political cover for Stupak's group. Planned Parenthood announced it was "extremely pleased," calling the order a "symbolic gesture."
A majority of pro-life groups argue that the law fails to prohibit federal funds from going to plans that cover elective abortions, and they worry that its $2.5 billion funding increase for community health centers does not prohibit those centers from using these dollars to offer elective abortions.
Stupak tried to assert on the House floor that it would ensure no public funding of abortion. But the order itself clearly states it will not "impair" authority granted by law and that it does not "create" any "enforceable law."
Reprisals for Stupak, a one-time hero of the pro-life movement, came fast: The night of the vote, the Susan B. Anthony List revoked its "Defender of Life" award to Stupak.
Abortion's key role in the healthcare debate has placed the issue back on the center stage of election season. Both sides want to make pro-life Democrats extinct: Pro-abortion groups hope to shore up their hold on the Democratic party (and avoid pro-life victories like the first vote on Stupak's abortion restrictions in November) while pro-lifers don't want to risk another ninth-inning cave by pro-life Democrats. That could be bad news for Democrats in a nation where the majority now calls itself pro-life.
Stupak himself now faces a primary challenge from a pro-abortion Democrat and, should he survive that, a pro-life Republican.
On March 24 Obama quietly signed Stupak's executive order. No reporters or cameramen were invited.