With the Capitol building at their backs, conservative GOP House members, including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Georgia Rep. Tom Price, braced against the icy Washington weather and held an outdoor press conference last Tuesday, urging the repeal of the president's healthcare reform law. With an eager new Republican majority in the House, such campaigning for votes on the bill was as symbolic as the vote itself. But the political theater wasn't for naught, as lawmakers on both sides used the vote to motivate their base and to reset their arguments for a debate over healthcare reform that has no clear end in sight. [See who gives the most campaign cash to Bachmann.]
Last Wednesday evening, Republicans delivered on their 2010 campaign promise and passed the repeal bill, which they titled "Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act," 245 to 189, with three Democrats joining the GOP lawmakers to vote in favor. Both sides had been in full campaign mode leading up to the vote. Democrats are expected to stall the repeal bill in the Senate, and President Obama's veto power ensures it won't go anywhere. But as the healthcare law's fate ultimately depends on public opinion and the results of the next election, the politicking goes on unabated. [See photos of healthcare reform protests.]
"They're laying the groundwork for 2012, but it's so long until then," says Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia. "[Healthcare] is just one of those issues that's going to be perennial."
Republicans echoed their 2010 campaigns last week, arguing that Obama's healthcare law will hurt the economy. House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP members focused on a letter released Monday by 200 economists arguing that case. "Too many Americans remain unemployed and the United States faces a daunting budgetary outlook," the economists wrote. "We believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a threat to U.S. businesses and will place a crushing debt burden on future generations of Americans."
Republicans also insisted that the repeal vote was not a stunt, as opponents had criticized, but rather proof that they will follow through on the promises they made to voters. "To those across the United States who think this may be a symbolic act, we have a message for them," Bachmann said on the floor Wednesday. "This is not symbolic, this is why we were sent here, and we will not stop until we repeal a president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill, until we repeal the current Senate, put in a Senate that will listen to the American people and repeal this bill."
Just before the repeal debate began, House Democrats held the only hearing on the bill, in the only place they, as the minority, could: their own Steering and Policy Committee. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi opened the single-party hearing, inviting seven witnesses to share personal stories about how healthcare reforms have already aided them.
During the unofficial hearing, Democrats heard emotional testimonies from, for example, Stacie Ritter, from Lancaster, Pa., whose twin daughters had survived childhood leukemia. Though the children are now in remission, their bout with cancer left them with pre-existing conditions that Ritter had worried would prevent them from getting health insurance. Now, with the law in place, Ritter said her children are protected against insurance discrimination. "If Americans could just hear my story and understand why these rights and protections are so important to millions of our fellow citizens, they would oppose the patients' rights repeal legislation," she said. Democrats produced others with similar stories in order to put human faces on the law's benefits.
Pelosi repeated Ritter's and other similar stories during Wednesday's floor debate, joining other Democrats in recounting real-world examples of the benefits of the law, and especially its provisions that have already gone into effect. "Because of their stories of success of this bill," Pelosi said, "because repeal would be devastating to so many Americans, I am pleased to join a broad coalition in opposing it."
The Obama administration also stepped up in opposition to the repeal effort. The White House launched a blog series called "Voices of Health Reform," which shares a story a day about Americans positively affected by the healthcare bill, and also posted a video explaining the costs of repeal. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services, led by Kathleen Sebelius, released a report last Tuesday saying that as many as 129 million Americans under the age of 65 could be denied health coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions if the law is overturned. The timely statistic proved useful for Democratic lawmakers, as many reiterated the new findings on the House floor.
Democrats also bashed Republicans for accepting government-subsidized health insurance while advocating for repeal of the law giving others similar help. Before the final vote yesterday, Democratic Rep. Robert Andrews from New Jersey proposed that if the law is repealed, all members who voted for repeal would have to forgo their own congressional health insurance. His proposal was voted down. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
During the House floor debates, which lasted seven hours over two days, Republicans and Democrats mostly sparred over whether repealing the bill would help or hurt the nation's economy. Democrats touted numbers released from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimated that passing the healthcare repeal legislation could add $230 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the decade after that. Republicans argued the opposite. On the floor, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, displayed a chart debunking the CBO numbers, arguing instead that the healthcare law, if it remains in place, could add more than $700 billion to the deficit.
According to Sabato, last week's vote will change little, and what happens in coming months, when Republicans try to defund various provisions of the healthcare law, will have a greater effect. "It's just classic blue smoke and mirrors," says Sabato about the repeal vote. "Republicans are doing this for their base. Democrats are making sure it doesn't happen for their base, in the Senate at least. What's significant is what happens later in the appropriations process, what little provisions are included that will squeeze the current [law]."