For the most part, Democrats have flown under the radar in this health-care debate, preferring to step back and let Republicans shoot themselves in their leather-soled feet.

But on Friday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the most stirring speech givers in Congress, threw himself into the health-care debate in a big way.

As a vote on Republicans’ struggling health-care reform bill neared, Lewis stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives to tear into the bill with a passion the civil rights icon normally reserves for, well, civil rights issues.

We’ve transcribed most of his roughly two-minute-long speech below, but if you can watch it above, you’ll get its full effect. Lewis:

Health care is a right. It is not a privilege reserved for a wealthy few. For what does it profit this body to pass this bill and lose our soul? This bill is a shame. It is a disgrace. Mr. Speaker, today my heart breaks for the disabled women, for seniors and working families. My heart aches for those who are living paycheck to paycheck. My heart mourns for innocent children whose very lives depend on if their family can pay their bills.

This is the right and wrong of it. This is the heart and soul of the matter. We cannot abandon our principles, Mr. Speaker. We cannot forget our values. We have fought too hard and too long to back down now. I will fight any bill that turns the clock back to a darker time. I will fight every single attempt to turn a deaf ear, a blind eye and a cold shoulder to the sick, to our seniors and to working families. Mr. Speaker, I will fight every day every hour and every minute and every second. I oppose this bill with every breath and every bone in my body. We must not give up. We cannot. I will not give in; not today, not tomorrow and never. Ever. On this bill there is only one option. And that option is to vote no.

The son of sharecroppers turned civil rights icon turned Democratic lawmaker knows how to rouse a crowd/a political movement/his colleagues in Congress. He was the leader of the Democrats’ sit-in on the House floor in June after the Orlando massacre to demand a vote on gun control. (They never got it.)


Lewis’s speech gets at the heart of Washington’s back-and-forth on health care: What role, if any, should government have in it? How much should the government actively unwind a program it put in place several years ago that has insured some 20 million people?

Conservatives would object to Lewis’s framing that they’re turning “a cold shoulder to the sick,” but it is true they are lobbying for changes to the bill that would minimize the government’s role in people’s health care. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Thursday that the Republicans’ latest version would have 14 million fewer people insured by next year, and 26 million over the next decade. Some of those people will drop their health insurance on their own volition, but others who have and like their insurance will lose it.

Moderate Republicans, meanwhile, are worried about the consequences of voting for legislation that could cause thousands of people in their district to lose health insurance. In some districts, twice as many people could lose insurance than voted for the lawmaker in the first place.

Make no mistake: If this health-care bill fails, it will be largely Republicans’ fault. After several days of frantic negotiations, they’ve failed to cobble together a coalition to move it forward. All Democrats have to do is sit back and watch this legislation crash and burn and say “I told you so.”

But with an eye on the 2018 midterms, it doesn’t hurt to have a guy like Lewis remind the estimated 56 percent of Americans why they dislike this bill.