Debate Over Health Law Repeal Sparks Deja Vu

January 8, 2011

Julie Rovner

It may be a new year, but it's the same health care debate on the House floor. Acting on one of its top priorities, the new Republican majority on Friday started the process to repeal last year's sweeping health overhaul.

As the House settled in to debate the rule that would set the stage for a repeal vote Wednesday, there were a lot of new faces. But the arguments they made had a familiar ring to them.

"Everybody knows that the health care system's broken and that reform is needed," said Republican freshman Richard Nugent of Florida. "However, the unconstitutional job-killing mandates of Obamacare are not the answer."

Democrats are countering those arguments with a spirited defense of their own. They're focusing on some of the more popular provisions that are already in effect and helping their constituents.

California Rep. Doris Matsui talked about a young woman in her district who couldn't get insurance because she had a thyroid problem. The law helped her get back on her parents' health plan. She also talked about a senior named Gary who's getting help with his drug costs because he falls into the so-called "doughnut hole" in Medicare prescription drug coverage.

"Repeal would mean Gary and the thousands of other seniors in my district would see no relief from the … doughnut hole," Matsui said. "This is unacceptable."

Most of Friday's debate on the repeal, though, centered on the massive law's cost to the federal budget -- just like it did last year, when the law passed.  Democrats argued then, and now, that the law is more than fully paid for; it actually reduces the deficit. And the Congressional Budget Office, Congress's official scoring referee, agreed.

So it was no surprise that on Thursday, the CBO said repealing the law would add to the deficit. Specifically, it said it would add around $230 billion over the next 10 years.

Republicans, like Indiana's Mike Pence, scoff at that notion.

"Only in Washington, D.C., could you say you were going to spend trillions of dollars and save people money," he said. "And this morning, only in Washington, D.C., could you say that repealing a $2.7 trillion government takeover of health care is actually going to cost money."

So Republicans have decided to simply ignore the CBO when it comes to the health care law. They've exempted this bill from new rules that would otherwise require offsetting budget cuts for any bill that adds to the deficit. That brought charges of hypocrisy from Democrats, including Louise Slaughter, a ranking member of the Rules Committee.

"Estimates provided by the CBO are the singular authoritative figures upon which we make all our decisions and have for decades," she said. "Even if some don't like what the numbers tell us, we know that numbers don't lie."

But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he doesn't really blame the CBO; he blames the Democrats for giving the CBO bad numbers to work with.

"The CBO scores what's put in front of them. There is nothing that has changed about the flawed assumptions underlying the old score of the Obamacare bill, only the dates have changed," he said. "This is the same gimmicks, producing more false deficit reduction, and in fact real spending increases."

But whether the repeal bill increases the deficit or not doesn't really matter; it's not likely to get very far after it passes the House next week. Democratic leaders in the Senate say they won't take it up in that chamber, and President Obama already has vowed to veto it in the unlikely event it reaches his desk.

So why are Republicans pursuing what they know is basically a symbolic action? Because they said they would.

"The commitment was made that we would have an up-or-down vote on repeal," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier of California. "And that's exactly what we are doing."

And that vote is now scheduled for Wednesday -- after seven more hours of debate. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.