Groundhog Day in the House

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It is no longer a “job-killing” health-care law, at least to the House Republican leaders spearheading tonight’s effort to pass HR 2, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In deference to the shootings in Tucson, the GOP nomenclature of preference appears now to be “job-destroying.” Other than that, it’s been Groundhog Day on the House floor, with lawmakers from both parties lining up to laud or lambaste the 111th Congress’s health-care law with many of the same facts, figures and misinformation you’ve already heard before.

For hours, members trickled in and out of a mostly empty House chamber, waiting for their turn to speak as committee leaders parceled out time in one and two-minute blocs. Party leaders telegraphed the arguments to come in a pair of morning press conferences. Democrats say repealing the Affordable Care Act would increase the deficit — the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated repeal will cost $230 billion over the next decade — cut coverage to millions and strip away a host of popular provisions, from enabling individuals with pre-existing conditions to get coverage to allowing young people to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26. Republicans dispute the CBO estimate and argue that without repeal, the law will increase the deficit, cost 1.6 million jobs, raise taxes, tangle businesses in red tape and foster economic uncertainty.

Is it worth re-litigating these old arguments? Public opinion has largely calcified across the political spectrum, repeal will almost certainly die in the Senate, and it’s not like the House doesn’t have other business to attend to. But even if Wednesday’s session was a debate in name only — the primary target of members’ speeches were the stenographers, not their opponents — both sides seemed to find political merit in duking it out again.

For Democrats, it was a chance to do a better job making the case than they did last time. For Republicans, a repeal vote fulfills a core campaign promise. At a press conference with reporters in the Capitol basement, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy brandished a pocket card inscribed with the tenets of the GOP’s Pledge to America. “Today we are keeping the Pledge, and it is a start,” he said. (Tomorrow, they’re set to start on the “replace” component of the process, though House Speaker John Boehner ducked a question about what those replacement measures might look like, saying only that they would be “common-sense reforms.”) Questioned about what a merely symbolic repeal would accomplish, Majority Leader Eric Cantor jabbed at his counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, for his unwillingness to take up the bill, calling the upper chamber a “cul-de-sac” and “dead-end” for legislation. If Democrats were on the right side of the issue, he said, “let’s see the votes.”

As theater, it was often maddening stuff. There are only so many times you can listen to the same false claims and focus-grouped rhetorical salvos before you want to puncture your eardrums with a fork. And while there were plenty of eloquent speeches and substantive arguments, they all fall into one of a few buckets. Droves of Democrats told personal stories, citing constituents who have benefited from the ACA, stressed the benefits of the bill and the cynicism of what they cast as an empty political gimmick. Republicans worried about cost controls, individual choice and business constraints; several physicians in their ranks argued from a firsthand perspective that their patients’ treatment had been negatively affected.

Of course, there was plenty of grandstanding, too.  “I rise in support of freedom and free enterprise,” said Texas Republican Sam Johnson, who in the space of a few bombastic sentences proceeded to swaddle his cause in the Constitution, accuse his opponents of trampling it and invoke Patrick Henry. Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York City, went from zero-to-shouting at Ferrari speed. “Obamacare is the crown jewel of socialism,” proclaimed Republican Michele Bachmann. Of the coming repeal vote she added: “This is not a symbolic act. This is why we were sent here.”