Another week, another vote (or two) to defund health-reform bill

May 2, 2011

The news of Osama bin Laden’s death may have consumed Capitol Hill Monday, but it didn’t alter House Republicans’ plans to continue their months-long quest to defund President Obama’s health-care plan.

Unable to decapitate last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the GOP has decided instead to administer death by 1,000 cuts — with two more cuts coming this week.

On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on a pair of bills: One would repeal funding from the health-care bill for states to establish insurance exchanges, and the other would repeal mandatory funding for school-based health center construction.

The two measures — expected to pass with near-universal Republican support — are just the latest in a series advanced by the majority that seek to dismantle the reform bill plank-by-plank. Last month, the House approved a measure repealing the Prevention and Public Health Fund, and the chamber passed a spending resolution this year that would have defunded several parts of the law.

The House also passed a bill to repeal the entire health-care measure in January, before shifting to a more piecemeal approach.

Of course, the House-passed bills face little chance of becoming law, given Democrats’ control of the White House and the Senate. But the strategy enables Republicans to fulfill two campaign promises at once.

In addition to chipping away at the health-care law, a House Republican leadership aide said, the votes this week are “part of our larger efforts to eliminate wasteful spending government-wide, and that means eliminating some of these mandatory spending programs.”

For example, the insurance-exchange bill up this week has been dubbed by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) a “slush fund designed to push the states into doing what the administration wants using financial leverage.” He has also noted that, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, passing the bill would “save more than $14 billion by 2021.”

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the Commerce panel’s top Democrat, countered before the bill was approved by the committee last month that Republicans claimed to support state-based health reform, but then voted “to take away money states need — at a time of enormous pressure for them — to develop their own, unique insurance exchange programs.”

In January, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pledged to bring at least one bill cutting spending to the floor “each and every week,” so health care has been only one of several GOP targets. The chamber has also approved bills slicing funds for different provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform measure, as well as a bill ending public financing of presidential election campaigns and party conventions.

Whatever the GOP’s rationale, Democrats are unimpressed by this week’s schedule.

“They come back this week and instead of focusing on jobs they’re going to be voting to take away more Americans’ health care and do nothing to grow our economy,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

More such legislation is on the way. The Energy and Commerce Committee has also approved a bill that changes the way “personal responsibility education programs” are funded and a measure that does the same with money for teaching health centers.

A quiet farewell

An historic era came to a quiet end just before Congress recessed last month, as the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin — the first-ever Catholic House chaplain — resigned from his post after 11 years.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) praised Coughlin as an “integral part of the House community,” and a bipartisan group of leaders honored the chaplain in mid-April with a commemorative plaque and a flag that had flown over the Capitol.

Coughlin’s move was expected — he said last year, his 50th as a priest, that it was “time for someone else” — but it still leaves a void in the chamber.

It’s a void that hasn’t always been easy to fill.

Coughlin’s tenure in the job, which involves delivering prayers at the start of each session and providing pastoral services to members, was borne of controversy.

When the post last became vacant, in 2000, a bipartisan selection committee of three lawmakers supported a Catholic priest for the post. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) instead chose a Presbyterian minister, prompting suggestions from some Democrats that Hastert was anti-Catholic. A furious Hastert denied the accusation.

The speaker then changed course and appointed Coughlin, a fellow Illinoisan, who quickly became popular among members of both parties and all faiths.

This time Boehner and Pelosi will work together on appointing the next chaplain, according to Boehner’s office, and there won’t be a formal selection committee to interview candidates like last time.

Will the next chaplain be another Catholic, or will the leadership revert to the previous habit of naming Protestants to the role? That’s not clear yet.

For what it’s worth, Boehner and Pelosi are both Catholic. Overall, 57 percent of current House members are Protestant, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, while 30 percent are Catholic, and 6 percent are Jewish.

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