Nothing Is Repealed
Republicans fulfill a Tea Party promise, and get their first taste of irrelevance.
How do you pretend to achieve something when everybody knows you can't achieve it? This is a frequent problem in the House of Representatives, no matter who runs it. Nancy Pelosi's majority passed around 300 bills that never got anywhere in the Senate. That Senate, you'll recall, had a bigger Democratic majority than at any time since the 1970s. Democrats still could hardly get anything through it.
Republicans are in an even weaker position. On Wednesday, they concluded a protracted vote on the "Repeal of the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." (Yes, a "law act." It rolls off the tongue.) They won, 245 to 189, but they were expected to win, and after that they were—and are—expected to go no further.
But they tried. They started with a disadvantage, because the horrific events two weeks ago in Tucson stopped the business of Congress for a week, erasing their momentum. Instead of answering questions about repeal, they were gritting their teeth through a week of questions about the "new political tone" that Washington direly needed and talking about whether they'd shuffle the seating at the State of the Union to be more bipartisan.
"I don't know where I'll be sitting yet," joked Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the start of a Tuesday briefing, part of the repeal-vote kick-off. Then he got the obvious question: What will Republicans do after health care repeal dies in the Senate?
"I don't necessarily accept the fact …" Cantor began, before starting a new line of argument. "If Harry Reid is so confident that he's got the votes in the Senate, he should bring it up, if he's got the votes."
It was smart—a dare for the Senate to bring up a bill, implying that it had a chance in hell of passing. It got headlines. It just didn't matter, because Reid's office knocked it down flat. I checked in with the offices of senators who had talked about their problems with the health care law, or who were in tough re-election battles. There was no sign of any Democratic support for repeal, which suggests that it won't even get a majority—it needs 60 votes to break cloture—if it comes for a vote.
But Republicans tried. They had promised voters they'd try. They promised it, and Tea Party activists expected it. After Cantor spoke to reporters, the originators of 2010's repeal bills, Reps. Steve King and Michele Bachmann, ventured into the chill outside to show off half a million petition signatures collected by RepealItNow, one of the better-connected anti-"Obamacare" groups. They introduced one another to their spokespeople. They reunited with Jenny Beth Martin, the likeable leader of Tea Party Patriots, who was in town with around 100 other activists to watch the vote.
"Jenny Beth!" said Bachmann, admiring the Tea Party leader's blue, buckled coat. "You look so hot!"
Bachmann, King, and three more members of Congress ambled up to a podium and explained that they were about to fulfill the promise they made in 2010. If anyone wanted to argue that this repeal vote was meaningless, they just weren't playing the long game like Republicans were.
"This is the consent of the governed that is speaking out now for the first time!" said Bachmann, pointing to a stack of petitions. "It is step one, phase one, beginning tomorrow. It is a journey you will see a strong, committed House conservative majority standing behind. We are not going to check the box off, have one vote, and move on."
The hard-liners had to confront two problems. First, the only people who thought the repeal vote would advance the cause of defunding and dismantling health care—that it was more than a symbol—were Tea Partiers, who were about to learn how cruel the Senate is. Martin told me that the activists newly in town would watch the vote happen from the Senate; they expected, at first, that an immediate Senate vote would come after the House vote. ("This was never in the cards.")
Second, Democrats were responding to the repeal push by getting granular about the bill, warning that Republicans would scrap the popular stuff, not just the unpopular (and Heritage Foundation-inspired) mandate to buy insurance. The argument was possibly expressed the best way in a floor speech by Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who attacked Republicans for saying reform would bankrupt the country and force end-of-life choices on the elderly.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Michele Bachmann by Tim Sloan/Getty Images.