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.
"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!"