By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM
House Republican leaders said Thursday that they will begin their effort to repeal the new health-care law next week, a return to normal legislative business after the shootings in Arizona suspended activity on Capitol Hill.
But no one quite knows what normal will look like, following a wrenching week in which members confronted concerns about their own safety and whether their heated rhetoric played any role in last Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 18 others.
As Giffords recovers in a Tucson hospital, many of her colleagues in Washington said they plan to change the tone in the House, a body that has served as the epicenter of caustic political debate for the past 20 years.
"It doesn't mean the issues go away, it doesn't mean that the positions on those issues change, but yes, this is going to affect everybody," said Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).
House Republicans had envisioned repealing the health-care law as a triumphant moment - a chance to vote down legislation that helped inspire the tea party movement.
Instead the effort has become a test of whether Republican leaders can regain the momentum of their big November midterm election wins and fulfill a campaign promise without the rancor that has marked almost every other health-care debate.
The rescheduling of the repeal vote was announced the morning after President Obama issued a call for "a more civil and honest public discourse" during a memorial service for victims of the Tucson attack.
Republicans, who congregated Thursday night at a hotel in Baltimore's Inner Harbor for their annual retreat, said that's what they intend.
They said their goal is to conduct a sober, issue-oriented debate focused on convincing voters that the law needs to end. Party leaders think the law is unpopular, especially among political independents, and a reasoned debate on its merits could amplify its more controversial elements, such as the mandate that people buy health insurance.
"As the White House noted, it is important for Congress to get back to work, and to that end, we will resume thoughtful consideration of the health-care bill next week," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "Americans have legitimate concerns about the cost of the new health-care law and its effect on the ability to grow jobs in our country. It is our expectation that the debate will continue to focus on those substantive policy differences surrounding the new law."
Republicans said that Obama's health-care promises - including that the legislation would lower insurance costs and help spur job creation - have not materialized and that they want to keep the debate focused on those matters.
"The president made very specific promises about what the health-care bill would do," Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Thursday. "We can and should have a debate about the facts of the law and its record."
The first debate has been about the name of the Republican bill: "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Some Democrats want to take "killing" out of the title in deference to the Tucson victims, but Republicans have declined to change the name.
House Democrats had hoped that Republicans would delay the debate a bit longer, until after Obama's State of the Union speech on Jan. 25.
"I would hope that we would let some time go by before we get back on track with this conversation, but it's their call," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (N.C.). But, he added, "even if they do, if the tone of it is civil, then it's okay."
A Senate Democrat, meanwhile, proposed a symbolic gesture to signal the new era: Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.) encouraged lawmakers to sit together during the State of the Union address. Members of Congress may sit anywhere in the House chamber, senior congressional aides said, but typically break into partisan camps, divided by the center aisle.
Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), one of the leaders of the health-care debate in the House, urged Republicans to wait until after that speech before bringing up health care. "I'm not accusing them of doing anything improper if they do bring it up," he said. "But good judgment would say: Let's extend this period of healing before the House returns to something as divisive as health care."
When Democrats began their latest effort to overhaul the health-care system, in 2009, supporters and detractors alike portrayed it in the harsh language of political battle that has come under scrutiny over the past several days.
Conservatives decried the "death panels" that they said would cut short the lives of grandparents. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" from his seat on the House floor, interrupting Obama as he was delivering a speech. Then-Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) rose to national prominence for depicting the Republican position on health care as "die quickly" and for characterizing the uninsured problem as a "holocaust."
Giffords played a role in the drama as well. The moderate Democrat was a critical vote for health-care legislation, and on the night of final passage last March, a brick was thrown through the door of her Tucson office. It was Giffords's vote on the bill that led former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) to put cross hairs over her district on a map of Democrats she hoped to defeat in November.
Health-care reform has long ranked as one of the most potent public policy issues. Last week, Democrats began firing their own political broadsides at the House repeal effort. The morning Giffords was shot, the Democratic National Committee called the pending debate "a bring-it-on moment," singling out House Republicans who represented districts Obama won in 2008.
Given the stakes, some lawmakers said it is unrealistic to expect much of a change in tone, short of eliminating references to violence.
"I expect the debate here to remain vigorous," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), who is known for his passionate and pointed speeches. "There is nothing wrong with strong, heated debate. It is when we begin to characterize one side or the other as being un-American, or traitors, those kind of terms. But not the fact that someone says that this is socialist, or this is a tool of the insurance industry. As a near free speech absolutist myself, I don't expect this to not be expressed with the fullest vigor."
The Republican retreat is designed to begin an ambitious year-long agenda focused on cutting government spending and rolling back some of the major legislation Democrats have passed in recent years. It will conclude Saturday morning with a session on health-care repeal.