House begins debate on health-care repeal with a collegial tone

The House has begun formal debate on the GOP bill to repeal the health care law. Meanwhile, President Obama says he'll work with Democrats and Republicans to improve the new law, but says lawmakers shouldn't "go backward."
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:10 AM

This time around, there were no frightening warnings about "death panels" for the elderly or a "holocaust" of uninsured Americans.

Returning to official business Tuesday for the time since the tragedy in Tucson, the House took up a contentious issue certain to test lawmakers' powers of restraint: health-care reform. Republicans promised during the 2010 campaign to dismantle President Obama's signature domestic policy initiative, but now, in the transformed political environment of the past 10 days, the debate has come to represent a civility test for elected officials.

And sure enough, the opening hours of debate on H.R. 2, "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," were free of the apocalyptic rhetoric that defined last year's campaigns.

One Republican, Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif.), conceded on the House floor that "Obamacare," however flawed, was "well intentioned."

For lawmakers in both parties, the sudden outbreak of collegiality represented an opportunity to prove to the public, and one another, that the slash-and-burn style that has defined House discourse lately is not the only way to conduct the nation's business.

"This new law is a fiscal house of cards," said Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the first Republican to speak, setting the tone for the next 21/2 hours. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, replied politely, "Perhaps this debate will clear up many of the myths and misinformation."

Hardly anyone cited the bill's formal title, with its mention of "killing," after the House clerk read it into the record at the start of the debate. Even outside groups, known for issuing blunt appeals to supporters, kept their rhetoric to a simmer.

Ken Hoagland, a conservative activist and chairman of the group Repeal HealthCare Act, appeared at an event with outspoken GOP Reps. Steve King (Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.) to present petitions from 535,000 Americans who support rolling back the law. The signatures are "an example to the rest of the world how even dramatic change in public policy can be effected through peaceful means," Hoagland said.

"I don't think the debate's changed. The tone has changed," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who also attended the event. He said he and his colleagues are praying for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the other victims of the Tucson attack. "But when you know what this health-care bill is going to do to people, it doesn't mean that we stop pushing to get this repealed," he said.

In remarks at his weekly news conference Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said rank-and-file Republicans were not given any instructions on language that may or may not be used this week. But he said he and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had made clear to their members that they should focus on unpopular provisions in the legislation, such as the mandate that requires individuals to purchase insurance.

"This is about health policy, this is about a policy-oriented debate. Obviously there are strong feelings on both sides of the bill. And, you know, we expect the debate to ensue on policy lines," Cantor said.

Democratic leaders also declined to provide specific directions for the debate. But House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said he expected that Democrats would "heed their own advice and the advice of others" and address health-care repeal on its merits.

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