WASHINGTON – Shadowed by the recent Arizona shootings, the House began debate Tuesday on a Republican effort to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, with both sides taking pains to control the heated rhetoric that accompanied passage of the law last year.
Perhaps no other issue has altered the tenor of partisan debate in this country as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Yet on Tuesday, lawmakers were restrained if divided.
Democrats told emotional stories of constituents now benefiting from the new law – particularly children who can no longer be denied insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Republicans chiseled away at a “budget-buster” law they portray as government overreach at a time when the economy continues to struggle.
Obama issued a statement late Tuesday saying he is “willing and eager to work with both Democrats and Republicans to improve the Affordable Care Act. But we can’t go backward.”
Republicans largely ignored an attempt by Democrats to rename the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act” to temper the language following the Arizona shooting this month that killed six and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
But Republicans now mainly refer to the “job-destroying” health care law.
“Obviously there are strong feelings on both sides of the bill, and we expect the debate to ensue along policy lines,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader. “We are going to be about decency here and engage and promote an active debate on policy.”
The legislative outcome by week’s end will be no surprise: The House GOP is expected to easily pass the repeal, although it is not likely to advance in the Senate.
Senate Democrats who control the chamber have no intention of bringing the repeal bill to the floor.
Democrats increasingly see more value in promoting the new law amid GOP calls for repeal, and doubt Republicans will seriously deliver on crafting a promised replacement bill.
“This bill isn’t repeal and replace, it’s repeal and forget,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
As the House took up debate Tuesday, the Obama administration and its allies stepped up their campaign to defend the law and challenge the GOP to overturn its more popular provisions.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius unveiled a new report suggesting that as many as 129 million Americans with pre-existing medical conditions could face discrimination if the health law is repealed.
Because most of those people currently get health benefits at work, they have some protection from being denied coverage. But millions of Americans are still being denied health benefits because of conditions like asthma, diabetes or cancer. And others face loss of benefits if they lose their jobs.
The law already prohibits insurers from denying coverage to sick children. That guarantee will be extended to all Americans in 2014, when the new mandate requiring people to get insurance, one of the provisions most detested by opponents, also goes into effect.