House readies to vote on yet another bill to repeal health-care law

May 15, 2013

Doing the same thing over and over again — and expecting a different result — is supposed to be the definition of insanity.

On Thursday, it is the only thing on the calendar for the House of Representatives.

Since Republicans took over in 2011, the House has voted five times to repeal President Obama’s health-care law. It has also voted 31 other times to repeal individual pieces of the law or to strip away its funding.

Still, on Thursday the House will do it all once more — voting on a new bill to repeal the law. It will pass again. Then it will die in the Senate, again.

People will laugh. Again. But, in the odd world of Congress, this behavior has a certain kind of logic.

In their fight to defeat the law, Republicans believe the only way to success is to keep making a show of their failure.

“It’s important for the electorate as a whole to understand what the vision of the Republican conference is. Our vision is not Obamacare,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a freshman who campaigned on his opposition to the law.

After 36 votes, don’t people get that by now?

“I think they do,” Bridenstine said. But he said more people might be listening now, as the law’s implementation nears: “As this thing gets closer, there’s a lot more people who are understanding how it impacts them and their daily lives.”

Thursday’s vote will be the latest signal that — three years after it passed — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues to bedevil both parties. Democrats still have not felt the boost in goodwill that they expected as the act took effect. In fact, a recent poll showed just 35 percent of people view the law favorably.

Republicans, on the other hand, still can’t beat the law. But they can’t move on, either.

Earlier this year, in fact, GOP resentment of the law caused Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to pull back his own health-care reform bill. The problem was that Cantor’s proposal only wounded Obama’s effort, by taking some of its money away.

For the GOP’s rank and file, especially the 30 freshmen members, that wasn’t enough.

Now, those members will have a chance to kill the law. Or, at least, to try.

“The voters in my district expect me to do everything that I can to try to dismantle the law,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who returned to Congress this term after being out for 12 years. “And that includes voting to repeal it.”

The House will vote on H.R. 45, which would eliminate the health-care law in its entirety. That would mean an end to the “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance. It would also mean an end to the law’s more popular portions, such as the provision that allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

“We do not believe that an individual mandate or Washington-based health care is the direction we ought to go,” Cantor said Wednesday, explaining the re-vote.

There is no reason to think Thursday’s bill will ever become law. Democrats still control the Senate. And, even if they didn’t, President Obama has said he would veto the bill.

But, on Capitol Hill, sometimes making law is not the point. Congress is a theater just as much as it is a legislature. So public failures such as these — if played right — can become a path to success.

“It’s the jackhammer-type approach, to keep the issue on the table, to keep people writing about it,” said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s official historian. Ritchie is a man with a long memory: The example that leapt to his mind was from the late 1800s. Back then, the House passed a string of doomed bills demanding the direct election of senators. They eventually got their way in 1913.

In this case, the first time Republicans voted to repeal the health-care law was in January 2011. The GOP had just taken control of the House. The vote itself was never in doubt.

The House still talked about it for more than eight hours.

“Obamacare, as we know, is the crown jewel of socialism,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who was the 130th of 137 Republicans to speak. “It is socialized medicine.”

The bill passed. Then it died. And the pattern repeated.

In summer 2012, after the Supreme Court upheld the health-care law, the House voted to repeal the law again.

This time, there were more than six hours of debate. Searching for metaphors to describe the bill’s extension of government power, these Republicans reached to the very opposite edges of human culture. “Obamacare is no more than a Trojan horse inserted in the global epicenter of freedom,” said then-Rep. Benjamin Quayle (R-Ariz.). He was referencing Virgil’s Aeneid.

“Boss Hogg used his position of authority to terrorize the citizens of his community,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), referencing “The Dukes of Hazzard.” “Mr. Speaker, today, life imitates art. We now have another boss in our midst. I call this boss Obamacare.”

In the meantime, the House held more than two dozen votes to eliminate individual pieces of the health-care law. Most died, but seven became law. One ended a burdensome paperwork requirement. Another killed a long-term insurance program that the Obama administration had already given up on.

These were victories. But, for Republicans, they may have been more dangerous than failure. What if the GOP was actually making the law better by picking off its worst features?

“What you see here are calibrations that . . . potentially make the reform construct stronger,” said Dan Mendelson, a budget official in the Clinton administration who now runs a health-care advisory firm, Avalere Health.

On Thursday, Republicans will go big again — and remind everyone that they want the whole thing gone.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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