"That happens this year," the president said, noting that it will take four years to implement the bulk of the legislation because "we need to get this right."
"I'm signing this bill on behalf of my mom," who fought insurance companies even as she was dying from cancer more than a decade ago, Obama said. The president said he was also signing the bill for other leaders who tried to make health reform happen, from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rep. John Dingell to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy sat in the front row smiling.
"We are not a nation that scales back its aspirations," Obama said. "We are not a nation that does what's easy. That's not who we are. That's not how we got here."
To senior citizens, Obama said "these reforms will not cut your guaranteed benefits." The president also noted that he is confident the Senate will pass the reconciliation bill soon, a line that received huge cheers from the House Democrats in the room who were nervous about passing the Senate bill with all of its problems. The reconciliation measure corrects several major items and is expected to pass the Senate and be signed by Obama in the coming week. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) turned to Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) and they both burst out laughing.
After months of wrangling, the House approved on March 21 the Senate's health care bill by a razor thin margin of 219-212. The fate of health care reform had hung in the balance over the Fall and Winter, as Democrats have watched their popularity fade and their majority shrink after town hall meetings erupted in anger over the legislation. And then, after Republican Scott Brown (R-MA) won a special election to take the Kennedy's old Senate seat in January, Democrats were deprived of a 60th vote in the Senate and nearly lost the nerve to pass health reform altogether.
But what a difference two months can make. House Democrats made a big show of piling into buses to head down Pennsylvania Avenue for the ceremony. The mood at the signing ceremony was nearly ecstatic and some members even wiped away happy tears. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel shook hands with members in a back room. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was snapping pictures of his colleagues, something he's known for doing in D.C. on historic occasions.
Democratic Senators mingled in the Grand Foyer of the White House as their House counterparts arrived for the ceremony. A U.S. Marine played light music on piano.
Rep. Dennis Kucinch (D-OH) had a seat in the front row. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) smiled and shook colleagues' hands.
A White House aide told TPMDC there were more reporters crowding into the East Room to witness the ceremony than have been here for presidential press conferences. Health care special adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle brought her son, and was specially recognized by Obama. Staffers from the administration's health care team sat in the back rows of the East Room, some looking as if they were holding back tears.
"Mister President, I think we've got a happy room here," Vice President Joe Biden told Obama. There were shouts of "Here here" from members, who were snapping their own pics from cameras and blackberries.
I took this picture from the press spot in the back of the room.
Obama stayed shaking hands and posing for photos with the Democrats much longer than he has for other large signing ceremonies. Usually the president leaves the room and leaves members to mingle for awhile. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote on Twitter that Obama wore a "blue Tedstrong bracelet," similar to yellow Livestrong bracelets worn by Lance Armstrong. It was a gift from Kennedy's widow Vicki.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signed the measure yesterday in a short ceremony on Capitol Hill, several times referencing the "corrections" to the bill that will be made this week in the Senate. Democrats say they expect the Senate to wrap up its business and send that reconciliation measure to the president for his signature to finally complete their work on health care for the year.
"As you can see this is a very big bill. All that needs to be done are the corrections in the Senate," Pelosi told reporters, adding she is not worried about any antics from Senate Republicans that might change the reconciliation package.
As we've been reporting on our live-updating Countdown to Reform wire, the start of the reconciliation debate could be today and could run through Saturday.
Watch some of Obama's speech today:
Ed. note: This post has been updated from the original.
Additional reporting by Laura Colarusso