WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. John Dingell leaned back in his plush office chair and considered the feed that scrolled over his flat-screen TV at 10:07 a.m. Thursday. The Supreme Court, it said, had upheld the health care law he had worked for his entire life — and his father for nearly a quarter-century before that. And Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, had sided with the court's liberals on the crucial point.
"Well, I'll be damned," the dean of the House said quietly. His staff erupted in hoots and then, in a few cases, tears. One aide tore up a contingency plan for what to do if the court had ruled otherwise. "Ha!" Dingell said.
Love or hate President Barack Obama's signature health care law, its survival in the Supreme Court was sweet vindication for the Democrats who took enormous political risks — and paid with the loss of 64 seats and their House majority — to pass the law on their watch in 2010.
Republicans spent millions of dollars in ads making Rep. Nancy Pelosi the face of what they characterized as a massive government power grab in a time of recession. It was Pelosi, after all, who as House speaker muscled the law through Congress despite advice from many Democrats, including some of Obama's top aides, to narrow its scope.
Two years later, polls generally show the public still leaning slightly against it. And Republicans, from presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney on down, are rallying around their promise to repeal what they dismiss as "Obamacare."
Democrats are acutely aware the public is still not solidly behind the policy and that the high court's ruling may have energized Republicans. But cloistered Thursday on Capitol Hill, they savored the moment. Some spoke of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Obama patron who pushed for national health care for decades but did not live to see it signed into law.
Pelosi, now occupying a smaller suite of offices as House minority leader, told her close friend and fellow Californian George Miller that the court's decision was "a great victory."
"You bet your ass" it is, Miller responded, according to her office.
"I did," Pelosi is said to have replied.
Dingell, 85, the longest-serving House member in history, clearly expected the court to strike down the law. He cautioned his staff to refrain from "dancing in the streets just yet." But gradually, as he took in the news that Roberts had voted with the majority to uphold the law, he grinned.
"I think my little dad would grinning up above," the Michigan Democrat said.
John Dingell Sr., elected to the House in 1932, had been a sponsor of the Social Security program and national health insurance. The senior Dingell died in office in 1955; his son was elected that year to the same seat.
Pelosi used Dingell's gavel when the House passed the health care act in 2010. He attended the Senate vote early Christmas Eve morning 2009. And he was at Obama's side when the president signed the measure into law.
"We did it," Dingell said Thursday.