Soon after the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday, Republicans in the House plan to make good on a campaign promise that helped vault many new members to victory: voting to repeal President Obama’s health care overhaul.
The vote, which Republican leaders pledged would occur before the president’s State of the Union address later this month, is intended both to appeal to the Tea Party-influenced factions of the House Republican base and to emphasize the muscle of the new party in power. But it could also produce an unintended consequence: a chance for Democrats once again to try their case in support of the health care overhaul before the American public.
Democrats, who in many cases looked on the law as a rabid beast best avoided in the fall elections, are reversing course, gearing up for a coordinated all-out effort to preserve and defend it. Under the law, they say, consumers are already receiving tangible benefits that Republicans would snatch away.
House Democrats will get help from allies in the Senate, who can stop any repeal, and at the White House, where officials hope to transform the law from a political liability into an asset, a centerpiece of President Obama’s expected bid for re-election.
Health care is only one item on an aggressive agenda of Republicans eager to distinguish themselves quickly from the House that was run by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many seem to have latched on to “Undo It” the hit by the country singer Carrie Underwood, as the refrain for their planned attack against legislation that grew out of the 111th Congress, when the Democrats were at the helm in both chambers.
The health care law, entitlement programs, new limits on emissions of greenhouse gases from oil refineries and power plants, and other legislation that Republicans say cannot be justified by a strict interpretation of the Constitution — a document the new leaders plan to read on the House floor on Thursday — are all in the cross hairs.
While President Obama and Republicans were able to work together during last month’s lame-duck session — to the vocal consternation of the most partisan ends of each party’s base — to pass a tax package and a variety of last-minute legislation, including the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the ratification of the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty with Russia, such bipartisan consensus seems unlikely at the outset of the new House session.
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, who is in line to succeed Ms. Pelosi, has said that this time around he would lead efforts to revive the private sector by reducing the size of government — cutting federal regulation, taxes and spending, including the budget of Congress itself.
Mr. Boehner also said Republicans would alter House rules to make it easier to curb government spending and to require more public disclosure about the work of the House.
A flat-out repeal of the health care law would face a steep hurdle in the Senate, where Democrats still cling to a diminished majority, and would most certainly be vetoed by President Obama. But Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the House action would not be merely symbolic. “If we pass this bill with a sizable vote, and I think that we will, it will put enormous pressure on the Senate to do perhaps the same thing,” Mr. Upton said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But then, after that, we’re going to go after this bill piece by piece.”
Certainly as a political matter, the House debate may be the first battle in the new era of divided government, with each side struggling to present itself as the voters’ voice on an issue that has deeply divided the country.
“Many of the incoming Republican congressmen campaigned on the platform that included repealing Obamacare,” Representative Doug Lamborn, Republican of Colorado, said in an interview. “This was the biggest mistake made by the 111th Congress.”
The repeal effort is part of a multipronged systematic strategy that House Republican leaders say will include trying to cut off money for the law, summoning Obama administration officials to testify at investigative hearings and encouraging state officials to attack the law in court as unconstitutional.
For House Republicans, a repeal vote would also be an important, if largely symbolic, opening salvo against the president, his party and his policy agenda.
“Obamacare didn’t lower costs and does not allow people to keep the care they have if they like it, as the president promised,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the incoming House majority leader. “There will be a straight vote to repeal it prior to the State of the Union,” expected in late January.
Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, said: “It’s important that we repeal Obamacare as soon as possible because it is already harming the economy and killing jobs. Employers are seeing their costs for providing health insurance skyrocket, and that’s causing them to hold off on hiring and job creation.”
Ms. Bachmann had introduced a bill to repeal the health care overhaul in March, a day before it was signed into law.
For their part, the Obama administration and Democrats, who largely lost the health care message war in the raucous legislative process, see the renewed debate as a chance to show that the law will be a boon to millions of Americans and hope to turn “Obamacare” from a pejorative into a tag for one of the president’s proudest achievements.
Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, is coordinating the administration’s response. In a recent speech, she cataloged the damage she said would be done by the law’s repeal. Outside groups that fought for the law, like Families USA and Health Care for America Now, also say they will join the fight to preserve it.
Representative Robert E. Andrews, Democrat of New Jersey, challenged the Republicans to bring it on. “We will respond by pointing out the impact of repeal on people’s lives,” Mr. Andrews said. “On women with cancer who could be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. On senior citizens who would lose the help they are receiving to pay for prescriptions.”
Democrats argue that repeal would increase the number of uninsured; put insurers back in control of health insurance, allowing them to increase premiums at will; and lead to explosive growth in the federal budget deficit.
“For months, Republicans have been shoveling out hypocrisy and lies to the American public,” said Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York. Mr. Crowley and more than 60 other House Democrats have demanded that lawmakers pushing for repeal of the new law give up their own government-subsidized health insurance.
The Democrats say Republicans will make a mistake if they focus first on repeal, rather than on finding additional ways to stimulate the economy and create jobs — a mirror image of criticism that Republicans lobbed at Democrats for the last 18 months.
Republicans appear to have greased the wheels for swift action on their repeal bill, much as Democrats moved with lightning speed to pass some of their top priorities after taking control of the House in January 2007.
Under new rules drafted by House Republicans in an effort to bolster fiscal discipline, lawmakers must show how they will pay for legislation that increases the deficit. But a bill repealing the health care law would be explicitly exempted from that requirement.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the health care overhaul will reduce deficits by more than $140 billion over 10 years, largely because new spending will be more than offset by new taxes and cutbacks in the growth of Medicare.
Brandishing the budget office estimate, Democrats, often branded as fiscally irresponsible, are prepared to slam the Republicans as hypocrites.
“In their first month, House Republicans will break one of their first promises,” Mr. Andrews said. “They will pass legislation that significantly increases the deficit. And they will ignore the impact on the deficit.”
Republicans defend their decision by maintaining that in the long run, the federal government cannot afford the commitments in the law, which would vastly expand Medicaid eligibility and subsidize private insurance for millions of Americans.
The new Congress is also likely to be dominated by bitter fights over federal spending and borrowing, with a vote expected this spring on legislation to increase the federal debt.
Austan D. Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Sunday that hitting the debt’s $14.3 trillion ceiling without extending it would mean “essentially defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history.”
“The impact on the economy would be catastrophic,” Mr. Goolsbee said on “This Week With Christiane Amanpour” on ABC, and would lead to “a worse financial economic crisis than anything we saw in 2008.”
But Allen West, a Florida Republican who will take office this week, seemed to speak for many of his House Republican colleagues on Sunday. “The only way that I would ever support raising the debt limit is if we also talk about budgetary controls on the federal government, capping its spending,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC.
It is clear that as Congress prepares to convene, Republicans have little desire to wait to carve out the territory separating them from their Democratic colleagues on many issues. As one incoming freshman, Representative-elect Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, said: “It is important for conservatives to make sure we govern consistent with our platform on the campaign trail. If we are going to do that, we had better start immediately.”