Healthcare repeal vote to test House Dems’ strength in new minority role

The vote to repeal the healthcare reform law Wednesday will serve as a first major test of how Democrats plan to use their severely limited power in the House minority.

Republicans are preventing open amendments to the bill, leaving Democrats with only a single opportunity to offer a “motion to recommit” as an alternative to the legislation.

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When Democrats ran the House, the GOP made aggressive use of the last-chance motions to stymie the majority, repeatedly inserting language related to pornography and other politically delicate subjects that forced Democrats either to pull legislation from the floor or to take risky votes. Democrats complained loudly about the tactics, accusing Republicans of offering irrelevant poison-pill amendments and “playing political games” with serious and occasionally bipartisan legislation.

The question is: Now that the party roles are reversed, will Democrats do the same?

Democrats have not telegraphed what motion they will offer on the healthcare repeal — the element of surprise is a key facet of floor strategy in the minority, and aides to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) would not discuss the party’s plans. But the procedural maneuvers party leaders employed during the first votes of the 112th Congress signal that Democrats plan to follow the GOP’s strategy in style if not in substance.

In two motions to amend the GOP-proposed rules for the new Congress earlier this month, Democrats targeted what they view as Republican hypocrisy on the deficit and on healthcare. One motion would have limited exemptions to the pay-as-you-go deficit rules, while the other would have required lawmakers publicly to disclose whether, as federal employees, they are accepting health insurance from the government.

“Those were directly germane,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the former House Democratic campaign chief who is now the party’s ranking member on the Budget Committee. “We think it’s hypocritical for them to repeal a healthcare reform bill that provides more affordable health coverage to Americans at the same time they are now receiving government-subsidized healthcare.”

Both motions the Democrats offered dovetailed with the party’s political message against the new GOP majority’s agenda, and both failed on strict party-line votes.

“It certainly has political consequences, but we didn’t do it for purely political reasons,” Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said in reference to the health insurance disclosure amendment. For weeks, Democrats have highlighted reports about Tea Party-aligned Republican freshmen facing questions over their personal health insurance decisions.

Despite their political overtones, the Democrats’ early maneuvers stopped well short of some of the legislative tactics Republicans tried. In one notable instance last spring, Republicans scuttled a bipartisan bill providing funding for scientific research and training when they offered a motion to recommit that prohibited federal funding from paying the salaries of government employees who had been disciplined for viewing pornography at work. Other elements of the motion would have gutted the original bill, known as the America Competes Act, and Democratic leaders pulled the legislation from the floor over fears that the GOP would have hammered them in campaign ads for opposing the anti-porn measure.

At the time, then-Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) and Brian Baird (Wash.), who authored the science bill, called the GOP maneuver “cynical,” “specious,” “absurd” and “disgusting.” (Democrats eventually passed a smaller version of the legislation.)

As they embark on life in the minority, Democrats say they’ll go after the GOP, but they are promising to stay out of the legislative gutter.

“I swear to you there’ll be no pornographic amendments,” said Andrews, a Pelosi ally. “I don’t think we should do anything to embarrass Republicans. They are eminently capable of doing that themselves.”

A Democratic leadership aide added: “It’s all about putting them in a tough spot and highlighting Republican hypocrisy. Those are opportunities to deliver our message.”

Republicans say they are ready for whatever Democrats throw at them. “Procedural motions are just that — procedural, and totally political,” said Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for House GOP whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.). She added she was not surprised to see Democrats try to use motions to recommit to score political points.