Politics Summary: Monday, March 22nd

President Obama passes the healthcare bill, the "cash for access" scandal, Alistair Darling, Vince Cable and the Tory "gang of six".

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Congress finally passed the healthcare bill last night, paving the way for near-universal health coverage for the first time in US history. The bill was passed by 219 votes to 212, reports The Times, bringing to an end almost a century of struggle since Theodore Roosevelt started the ball rolling in 1912. The $940 billion package extends coverage to 32 million Americans without healthcare and makes it illegal to uninsure people who become ill or have existing conditions.

After the vote, a relieved President Obama said: “Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics … We proved we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling big challenges … This is what change looks like, tonight we answered the call of history.” Right-wing opponents of the bill had tried to intimidate congressmen as they went in to vote, reports The Guradian: “Some directed racist and other derogatory remarks at African-American members of Congress, including John Lewis, one of the veterans of the 1960s civil rights movement. One congressman was spat on. Another protester shouted ‘faggot’ at a Democratic congressman, Barney Frank.” The Independent adds: “The bill’s final approval represented a stunning turnaround from January, when it was considered dead after Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote in a special Massachusetts Senate election. But Obama and Democrats rallied last month for a final push, and will use the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules to bypass the need for 60 votes on the changes they sought to the overhaul.”

Yesterday’s Sunday Times investigation into “cash for access” dominates the papers this morning, with outrage at the idea of Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon touting themselves for business like “cabs for hire”. The behaviour of the three former ministers has been condemned by both Labour and the Conservatives. The Times reports David Cameron’s remarks: “I have been warning for some time that lobbying is the next scandal to hit British politics … These are shocking allegations. The House of Commons needs to conduct a thorough investigation into these ex-Labour ministers.” The Telegraph reports David Miliband’s anger: “There is absolutely no room for anyone to trade on their ministerial office … People come into politics — whether Labour, Tory or Lib Dem — because of what they want to do for the country. Anything which sullies that reputation or gets in the way of that public service is completely inimical.” And The Independent reports Nick Clegg’s horror: “It’s just very, very sleazy and I think people are so fed up with the way in which money and greed is corrupting our politics … “We need to reform the whole rotten system from top to toe.” The investigation will be broadcast on tonight’s Dispatches programme on Channel Four at 8.

The Chancellor will reveal details of which government departments are to have their spending cut in the Budget, reports the Financial Times. Alistair Darling will make the announcements to counter charges Labour is not committed to cutting the deficit, and to add clarity and credibility to the deficit reduction plan. The Times, meanwhile, reports that Darling will have to find an extra £20 billion in savings on top of the £11bn announced in November’s PBR. According to reports by the CBI and the Ernst & Young ITEM Club, consumer spending “is likely to remain weak for years to come”, while “over-optimistic growth forecasts mean that the Government needs to find another £10 billion by drastically cutting spending and raising taxes in the next Parliament in order to meet its commitment under the Fiscal Responsibility Act” according to the ITEM club.

The Telegraph reports Vince Cable is “in talks with Treasury about becoming chancellor in a hung parliament”. The report says that Cable has “declared himself willing to serve in a coalition government after the spring General Election”, and has been “questioned by Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury’s permanent secretary, about his party’s economic policies”. The Telegraph also looks at the latest polls: “One showed the Tory lead shrinking by three points, while the other suggested it had widened by the same margin. Neither, however, would translate into an overall majority for the Conservatives. With less than seven weeks to go until the expected election date of May 6, ICM put the Tories on 38% – down two – and Labour up one at 32%. The Liberal Democrats were a point down at 19%. By contrast, YouGov showed a single-point improvement for the Opposition to 38%, Labour down two on 31% and the Liberal Democrats up two at 19%.”

And The Guardian profiles the “Gang of six” – the key figures in the Tory election campaign. They are: shadow Chancellor George Osborne, campaign director for the election, Cameron’s ” closest friend and political ally”, who is set to play second fiddle to Ken Clarke on the economy, giving him “more time to concentrate on the campaign”; Steve Hilton, director of strategy, “one of the authors of the election manifesto … in charge of longer term thinking in the campaign”; Andy Coulson, director of communications, who “has played a decisive role in sharpening up the Tory media operation” and will have “more of a day-to-day role in the campaign”; Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, whi will “play an important role in shaping the strategy of the campaign and lending his famously eloquent pen to Cameron’s speechwriters”; Stephen Gilbert, director of field operations, “a close ally of Lord Ashcroft”, who “went to work with Ashcroft in his separate marginal seats unit in the runup to the 2005 election”; and George Bridges, Osborne’s deputy, who “stitches the bits together” according to a CCHQ source.

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