Health Reform Debate Revisited: What’s the Tone in a New Congress?

BY News Desk  January 19, 2011 at 3:05 PM EST

House Republicans are delivering on a campaign promise that helped fuel their many of election victories last year by debating a measure to repeal last year’s health reform law. A vote should come later Wednesday.

Here’s Betty Ann Bowser’s report on Tuesday’s debate, followed by Judy Woodruff’s discussion with two lawmakers on the move:

While the debate and vote (which you can watch in a live stream on C-SPAN) is expected to be more symbolic than substantial — a repeal proposal will most certainly fail in the Democratically-led Senate — we asked some experts to weigh on the change in tone from last year’s health care reform debate and what it tells us about the new Congress.

First up, Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a regular NewsHour analyst:

The change in tone in the health reform debate from last year to this is dramatic, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is because of the tragedy in Tucson and the public reaction to it.
Last year’s debate in the House was raucous, nasty, filled with rancor, bickering, outrageous and often false statements, fiery rhetoric and regular shots impugning the motives and basic character of the other side. Even when there were no charges of death panels or the like, the heat was sharply turned up, underscored by then-Minority Leader John Boehner’s peroration against the bill that was punctuated repeatedly by his yelling “hell no!” on the House floor.

This week’s debate on repeal of the Affordable Care Act has certainly had its moments of overblown rhetoric, but virtually all of it has been polite and focused on policy, not motives or outrageous charges. For example, Mike Pence of Indiana, a Tea Party favorite, went through a point-by-point explanation of why he believes that the provisions of the act are indeed “government takeover of health care.” The tone in general has been measured, voices have rarely been raised, and the focus has been on two different views of the bill.

To be sure, there have been some pointed comments. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, asked if any of the Republicans could answer a question about a provision in the bill that sent $250 checks to seniors on Medicare to ameliorate the donut hole costs of prescription drugs: would the repeal effort force those seniors to return the payments to the Treasury? Nobody responded, making Cohen’s polite, but barbed, question, a potent one.

It was also a substantive one about the impact of repeal, hitting highly popular provisions and unpopular ones alike, and leaving lots of questions about how you can in fact “repeal and replace” when there is no replacement plan and no roadmap for replacement on the table. Leading up to the House vote, the debate has not been ideal — it is less a debate with genuine give-and-take, and more a series of one- or two-minute speeches. That, unfortunately, is typical of House debate. I wish we had more scheduled, real debates in the House and Senate. But it has been substantive, civil and meaty. Keep your fingers crossed about how long we can sustain that tone in future weeks and months, as Tucson fades and the ingrained elements of our permanent campaign reassert themselves.

And from NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser:

The one thing that is striking about today’s debate to repeal the health care law is this: It lacks passion. There are good reasons for the cool rhetoric. Tucson, after all, was less than two weeks ago. So as members have taken to the floor there have been no angry speeches about death panels, no name calling. It has been measured, polite and I have only heard the term “job killer” used once to describe the bill — and that came from a Democrat who said “some people call this law a job killer.”

The arguments for and against repeal have fallen along party lines. The Republicans have argued the health care law will discourage employers from hiring new people because they won’t be able to afford health insurance for them. Indiana Republican Mike Pence set out one of the GOP’s main complaints saying the law amounts to a government take over of health care. Another Republican argued it will be too expensive forcing the federal government to hire hundreds of bureaucrats and IRS agents to police the law.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Henry Waxman of California called the repeal effort a “story of Robin Hood in reverse….[taking] essential health benefits from struggling Americans.” Another California Democrat, George Miller, said repeal of the law would put American’s health care back in the hands of insurance companies, adding “nobody wants to go back there.”

In a few hours, when members vote to repeal the law, that will be that. The bill is going nowhere in the Senate. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has made it clear he has no intention of scheduling a vote on it, period. So what happens now?

On Thursday, the House will instruct the four committees with jurisdiction over health care to get down to business and come up with an alternative health care reform plan. Speaker John Boehner said this morning he wants a “common sense reform that will bring down the cost of health insurance.” But what that will be is anybody’s guess, because many Republicans like a number of provisions in the very bill they are repealing today. Most agree insurance companies should not be allowed to cancel people’s insurance when they get sick or deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Republicans will also now be able to begin a series of oversight hearings, summoning various officials of the Obama administration to Capitol Hill to explain how they are implementing portions of the law. Fred Upton, who recently took over the House’s major oversight committee, recently suggested that Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius might want to get a permanent parking spot on the Hill, a hint at how many times his committee may call upon officials like her to explain the rule making that’s underway from the law.

The other thing the majority in the House will be able to do is refuse to fund certain provisions in the bill. For example, they can say no to funds to hire new IRS agents to police the law.

All of this is likely part of a strategy leading up to 2012, when Republicans hope they can use the health care law to propel one of their own into the White House. That’s when it’s possible the entire law could be repealed just as easily as the symbolic repeal that is taking place today.