Health care debate: Tastes great, less killing

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 19, 2011;

House Speaker John Boehner set a difficult target for his troops: Could they fire shots at the health-care bill for seven hours without using the word "kill"?

The challenge became apparent in the first seconds of the House debate Tuesday afternoon, as the clerk read the title: "A bill to repeal the job-killing health-care law." The title had become a liability after the Arizona massacre, but GOP leaders couldn't, or didn't, change the name. They led, instead, by example.

Boehner, in a pair of statements on his Web page, dropped the "job-killing" phrase in favor of "job-crushing" and "job-destroying." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who two weeks ago used the phrase "job-killing" eight times in a single news conference, did not allow the k-word to escape his lips at Tuesday afternoon's news conference.

When one reporter goaded Cantor by noting that health-care repeal is "dead on arrival" in the Senate, Cantor kept his powder dry. "This is about a policy-oriented debate," he demurred.

Most rank-and-file Republicans got the hint. In the debate's early stages, they avoided virtually all violent speech, instead resorting to less provocative insults to describe the health-care law: a "government takeover of health care" (Ken Calvert, Calif.), a "job-destroying bill" (Scott Garrett, N.J.) and "this disaster of a health-care bill (Louie Gohmert, Tex.). Even Rep. Steve King (Iowa), an incendiary specialist, did nothing worse than complain about the "huge Obamacare bill" and call it "the entrepreneurial extinction act."

Republicans got through the first 80 minutes without a single misfire - until Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.) got his turn. He denounced the bill that Democrats "rammed through Congress last year" and demanded: "We must repeal the new health-care law that kills jobs."

It took an attempted assassination and the grave wounding of one of their colleagues, but it was a refreshingly sober Republican majority that handled itself - at least its early stages of the debate, which resumes Wednesday - in a far more responsible way than it did during the past two years. There were no chants of "Kill the bill!" No shouts of "Hell, no you can't!" No outbursts of "Baby killer!" or "You lie!" No sinister claims about "death panels" and virtually no talk about "tyranny," "communism" and "socialism."

Instead, there was a calmer debate about the commerce clause and the Congressional Budget Office. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) quoted Winston Churchill ("all men make mistakes, but wise men learn from them"). Freshman Rep. Jaime Herrera (R-Wash.), a Tea Party favorite, offered an unexpectedly conciliatory message: "We have the chance to correct mistakes made by both parties."

Of course, it will take far more than one afternoon of restraint to purge the poison. And, at any rate, the occasional gunslinger metaphor isn't responsible for the poison. Some bills should be "killed" in committee, other bills should be "dead on arrival" in the Senate, and there's nothing wrong with killing time, beating a dead horse or looking for the silver bullet, and when a session of Congress adjourns for the last time, it still should be called sine die.

Even the notion of job killing isn't, by itself, necessarily violent. The problem is lawmakers carelessly resorting to rhetorical extremes so often that they probably don't even notice it.

Union-backed "card-check" labor legislation? "A job killer," said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).

Climate change legislation? "A job killer," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

Wall Street reform? "A job killer," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.)

The defense appropriations bill was dubbed "a job killer" by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) determined that a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration "has two job-killer provisions." Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) called the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act "another job-killer bill."

And so many have dubbed the health-care legislation a job-killer that it long ago became overkill. "Job killer," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). "Job killer," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). "Job killer," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.).

On Tuesday, Democrats taunted Republicans about their now-awkward phrase. "We heard a lot of talk about the title of this bill and the jobs it supposedly kills," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). Rep. Rob Andrews (N.J.) said with disdain: "Republicans offer us a slogan, 'a jobs-killing health-care bill.' "

Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), another Democratic firebrand, accused Republicans of being "caught up in the rhetoric of the campaign" by "saying glib things like government takeover, job killing."

True, there were mentions of a government takeover and health-care rationing. And there were a couple of hotheads - freshmen Reps. Jeff Landry (R-La.) and Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) - who joined Goodlatte in talking about "job-killing."

But the new GOP majority generally showed a skill that had been lacking in the Republican caucus for the past two years: self-restraint.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company