GWEN IFILL: Republicans fulfilled a campaign promise today when the House voted 254-189 to repeal President Obama's health-care reform law. The bill stands little chance of becoming law, but that did nothing to tamp down the debate.
NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has our story.
MAN: H.R.-2, a bill to repeal the job-killing health-care law.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: With that quick announcement, the House launched into hours of debate on repeal of the health-care law, with Republicans staunchly in favor.
REP. PHIL ROE (R-Tenn.): I rise today in support of H.R.- 2, the repeal of Obamacare.
REP. STEPHEN FINCHER (R-Tenn.): Obamacare created what we all despise and know won't work: more government bureaucracy at taxpayer expense.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And most Democrats just as firmly opposed.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-Calif.): I strongly oppose this effort to repeal the health-care bill.
REP. DIANA DEGETTE (D-Colo.): We're repealing these benefits that help millions of Americans, and we are replacing them with nothing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The repeal drive has been building since President Obama signed health-care reform into law last March. Republicans have argued it's unconstitutional to make most Americans buy insurance or face a fine. They built on that argument today with their new majority.
Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana used the mandate to make a broader indictment of the law.
REP. MIKE PENCE (R-Ind.): When you order every American to buy health insurance, whether they want it or need it or not, that's a government takeover of health care.
When you pass legislation that makes it all run with hundreds of billions of dollars in higher taxes, mandates, bureaucracies and even public funding of abortion against the wills of the overwhelming majority of the American people, that's a government takeover of health care. And the American people know it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Florida Congressman Cliff Stearns and his colleagues also charged the health reform law will hurt economic growth.
REP. CLIFF STEARNS (R-Fla.), Florida: These employer-mandates that are in the health-care bill are terrible. And it's estimated -- it's estimated it'll wipe out 1.6 million jobs over just five years.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Democrats and some nonpartisan groups have disputed that number.
On another front, Republicans argued today the law will do nothing to control spiraling health-care costs. But Democrats maintained, the bill lowers the cost of health care and insures an additional 30 million Americans.
Congressman George Miller of California:
REP. GEORGE MILLER (D-Calif.): We have seen health insurance premiums jump dramatically, over the cost of living, over the last decade. That's not a comfort. What is a comfort is the freedom to know that never again will you have to contest the arbitrary rulings of an insurance company about your preexisting condition, about the coverage of your -- of your child's health care. That's the certainty that this legislation presents.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Another California Democrat, Lois Capps, pointed to other benefits that have already taken effect.
REP. LOIS CAPPS (D-Calif.): Across the country, parents now know that their children can be insured after graduation from high school or college. Seniors in the dreaded doughnut hole now have received help to pay for prescription drugs, and now can have a free physical each year.
And people who are already sick can no longer be dropped from their plans. Lifetime and annual coverage limits, that fine print that can thrust a family into bankruptcy just because someone gets sick, these are gone.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Amid the debate, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, met with House Democrats this morning, and warned, Americans with preexisting conditions will never get coverage if the law is repealed.
U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: People talk about repeal as political theater or symbolism. It isn't symbolic to the 149 million Americans with health conditions who now are locked out or priced out of the market.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the Senate side, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid reaffirmed today he will not bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dared Reid to hold that position in the face of public pressure.
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-Va.), House majority leader: Leader Reid continues to say that he is not going to bring this up for a vote in the Senate. The American people deserve a full hearing. They deserve to see this legislation go to the Senate for a full vote.
MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 245; the nos are 189. The bill is passed. And without objection, a motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Following repeal, the House will vote tomorrow on a Republican resolution that orders four committees to draw up an alternative health care plan.
GWEN IFILL: For more on today's action on Capitol Hill, we turn now to NewsHour political editor David Chalian.
And, of course, it was 245, not 254, as I said leading in.
But, that aside, tell us a little bit about the answer to Eric Cantor's question. Why won't the Senate take this up now?
DAVID CHALIAN: The Senate doesn't want to have this conversation -- or, I should say, Senate Democrats don't want to have this conversation, because Mitch McConnell -- as soon as the House passed the repeal bill tonight, Gwen, Mitch McConnell said, we must vote on this.
And you saw the political pressure going out to all the potentially vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection this next cycle: Hey, join the Republicans. We need a vote on this. The American people won't a vote on this.
You can sense the Republicans want to pressure Harry Reid as much as possible to give them a vote, even though they know it won't pass. They, too, want to be able to fulfill the campaign promise.
GWEN IFILL: If it's true that -- that the Republicans fully expect that -- really did expect the Senate not to take it up or the president to sign it -- in fact, the president to veto it -- why have this debate? What was the reasoning?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, John Boehner made it very clear. The speaker of the House went to the floor of the House today during the debate and said: This was a campaign promise. We made a pledge to the American people, and this is what they voted for.
In talking to Republicans on Capitol Hill today, you got a sense they didn't feel that they were going to be able to move forward with their new governing majority in the House of Representatives if they didn't check this box as a -- as a campaign promise fulfilled to their base, to their voters that sent them here, if they could not show that they were able to take a key platform and move forward with it, even if it's not going into law, even if it's not going anywhere, just fill that request of their voters, they felt they weren't going to be able to move on to other topics.
GWEN IFILL: And, in the end, the Democrats didn't really mind that much having a chance to have that -- to make a first impression a second time.
DAVID CHALIAN: Yes, that was...
DAVID CHALIAN: Those were Chuck Schumer's words.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: Although I'm a little skeptical -- skeptical about whether or not the Democrats really can make that second impression. You see sort of muddied poll numbers everywhere across the board.
ABC News-Washington Post poll out this week showed more Americans think it will actually cut jobs than add jobs. They think it will harm the economy more than help the economy. And, yet, even though the Republicans seem to have won the public relations battle there, only 37 percent of Americans say they want it all or a piece of it repealed.
So, you're getting a very confusing message in those polls. And that is because the law hasn't really taken hold yet. It's not until 2014 that we see all those millions of people get insurance.
GWEN IFILL: Isn't it also confusing because it's hard to know what's true, whether it's a job-killing bill or a job-creating bill? You have Republicans and Democrats just toe-to-toe arguing the exact opposite thing.
DAVID CHALIAN: There's no doubt about that. And -- and the fact that there's no sort of arbiter right now works to both sides' advantages, right? They each get to make these points.
And until the American people actually feel the real-world impact on their lives about what this bill does and does not do, both sides get to make these claims, and have some outside analysis where they point to and say, look at this study; no, look at this study.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: And you will not get to the facts until the American people are experiencing -- experiencing the benefits in their daily lives.
GWEN IFILL: Was the White House a little bit nervous about the fact of this debate happening, keeping this fight alive?
DAVID CHALIAN: I don't think they were terribly nervous, because they knew it would come up and go away rather quickly.
And they do like the timing of it. The president is going to be able to pivot away next week with the State of the Union. But they -- they relished the opportunity, as you were saying before, to just launch a full-on assault on the Republican attempt to repeal.
They were more sort of organized in their messaging back on this than I think they were during the actual, you know, hunt for the votes getting the bill passed last year.
GWEN IFILL: Today, there were e-mails, what the mayors -- why the mayors support it, why governors support it. They were pushing back...
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: ... and all coming from the White House.
Now, they were counting noses in the House, trying to figure out who's going do what. In the Senate, they're also counting noses, but for a different reason. We have retirements, and, today, Joe Lieberman.
DAVID CHALIAN: Yes, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, what a fascinating political career he has had.
It's -- he even said today -- in his remarks up in Connecticut, he said: I don't fit comfortably into these partisan boxes.
And that's for sure. You have a guy here who, within the last eight-year span, was on the national ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, sought the Democratic presidential nomination himself in 2004, endorsed John McCain in 2007, and got a major speaking slot -- slot at the Republican Convention in 2008. That's not a normal political career.
And he sort of...
GWEN IFILL: And was facing a tough race in 2012.
DAVID CHALIAN: And I was just about to say, and it's because of all that, that...
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: ... he was a man without a political base.
And so his prospects for reelection were really dim up in Connecticut. He said that's not why he was stepping down; he never shies away from a fight. I'm sure that's true, to some degree. But what is totally clear is, he was going to have a real fight on his hands to get re-elected.
GWEN IFILL: As you look at the list of people who are retiring or who could retire, which party looks like it's in the greatest peril?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, Democrats, I think, have a little bit more to worry about here in terms of retirements, but also just because the people that may not retire, but are seeking re-election, are doing so in tough states: Montana, Missouri, Virginia, North Dakota, where Kent Conrad retired yesterday.
DAVID CHALIAN: We're -- we're going to see very tough Senate elections, whether open seats or even the incumbent senators, because, remember, these Democrats that are now up in 2012, they won on that big Democratic wave in '06. They're not going to necessarily have that kind of wave this -- the next time.
GWEN IFILL: David Chalian, always fun. Thank you.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.