"They're using a lexicon designed to scare people," said Neal. The very next sentence: "Let me tell you what this proposal does—it eliminates 50 million people from getting health insurance!"
Republicans were ready for this line of attack. That is, they were ready to dismiss it. At the King/Bachmann Tea Party press conference, one reporter asked about a forthcoming Health and Human Services study that suggests 129 million Americans under 65 might have the sort of pre-existing conditions that could lead insurance companies to deny them care. Rep. Louie Gohmert literally laughed this off. Later, in the floor debate, Rep. Phil Gingrey laughed it off harder.
"One hundred and twenty nine million people with pre-existing conditions?" scoffed Gingrey. "They'd all have to have hangnails and blisters for that to add up. If you believe that number I've got a beach in Pennsylvania to sell you."
The HHS report was, at least, new information. Virtually nothing said during the three-day debate—it started before Tucson—was new. Only the people were new. The debate served as a way for freshman members of Congress, dozens of them conservatives who'd based their campaigns on opposing "Obamacare," to introduce themselves as fulfillers of a promise. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia freshman who'd come out of the state legislature and passed its opt-out of the health care mandate, used his time to inform the Congress that his state was winning its legal fight.
"No Virginian should be required to buy health care insurance," said Griffith. "As a Virginian, we did not accept the chains of George III, and we will not accept the chains of Obamacare."
Republicans introduced their peers to cancer patients who could be cured only because the United States had not wrecked its health care system with socialism. Democrats introduced their own Lifetime-movie-ready characters from their districts; wretches who had been saved by the grace of "Obamacare." Rep. Steve Israel, the Democrat tasked with ending the GOP majority in 2012, spoke of Hanna, a girl with spina bifida who was on the verge of losing coverage.
"Why would you want to say to Hanna, we're going to take away those protections, Hanna?" Israel said. A few dozen Republicans and a few dozen Democrats listened, nodded, or moved around the chamber, waiting for the debate to wrap.
When it finally wrapped, the act passed with about as few votes as either side could have predicted. Thirteen current members of the Democratic conference had voted against the health care bill in March. Only three of them—Reps. Dan Boren, Mike McIntyre, and Mike Ross—voted for repeal.
"It's largely a symbolic vote," shrugged sophomore Democratic Rep. Jared Polis. He suggested Democrats could join Republicans and roll back a new requirement for businesses to fill out additional tax forms. There just wouldn't be any comity on repeal or defunding. "It's a one or two day story. It's a way to get this talked about, and then we move onto other things."
Not far away from Polis, Steve King was in a happy mood. His BlackBerry was buzzing with press releases from FreedomWorks and Republican leaders about what they'd achieved. What they'd achieved was a repeal vote that he'd been asking for since March 2010. But I asked him what would be the difference between this vote and the many, many House proposals that die in the Senate, that fail to create or roll back anything significant—those 300 Democratic bills, or the 2007 attempt to defund the Iraq War, things like that.
"The difference is, they were not in sync with the American people," said King. "We could not be more in sync with the American people!"