By Russell Berman - 01/19/11 10:54 PM EST
The House voted on Wednesday to repeal the sweeping healthcare law enacted last year, as Republicans made good on a central campaign pledge and laid down the first major policy marker of their new majority.
The party-line vote was 245-189, as three Democrats joined all 242 Republicans in supporting repeal.
“Repeal means paving the way for better solutions that will lower the costs without destroying jobs or bankrupting our government,” Boehner said in remarks on the floor before the vote.
“Let’s stop payment on this check before it can destroy more jobs or put us into a deeper hole.”
The vote to roll back the president’s signature domestic achievement of the 111th Congress just 10 months after its passage underscores the deep divisions that still surround the new law. But whether House action will signal the beginning of a rapid dismantling of the healthcare overhaul or serve merely as a historical footnote remains to be seen.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have vowed to shelve the repeal bill, and President Obama has said he would veto repeal if it ever reached his desk.
With those threats in mind, GOP leaders dared the Senate to take up the measure, and they promised to fight the healthcare law in other ways if repeal failed.
“The American people deserve to see a vote in the Senate, and it ought not to be a place where legislation goes into a dead end,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.
Cantor noted that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had said the debate over repeal of healthcare would be a “political win” for Democrats.
“If so, let’s see the votes,” Cantor said.
Absent action in the Senate, Republicans defended their move to hold a repeal vote as upholding a key tenet of the “Pledge to America” unveiled during the midterm election campaign.
“Today we are keeping that pledge, and it is a start,” GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said.
If repeal were ultimately unsuccessful, Cantor has said, Republicans would “do everything we can to delay and defund the provisions of the bill.”
The seven hours of floor debate on repeal served as something of an extension of the nearly yearlong debate that preceded the law’s initial passage, as lawmakers argued over the merits of a measure that has yet to be implemented fully. Republicans said scrapping the law would allow Congress to start over on healthcare, while Democrats said repeal would increase costs and remove access to healthcare for millions of needy Americans.
The three Democrats who voted for repeal were Reps. Dan Boren (Okla.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), and Mike Ross (Ark.), all of whom opposed the law last year. Seven other Democrats who opposed the original law also opposed its repeal. Only the hospitalized Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) missed the vote.
No amendments were allowed on the bill, and Republicans fought back a Democratic motion that would have required a majority of members of both the House and Senate to forgo federal health benefits for repeal to take effect. The motion was aimed at highlighting what Democrats argue is the hypocrisy of Republican members opposing expanded health insurance for ordinary Americans while they accept the benefits themselves.
The second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), was one of only five Democrats to oppose his party on the motion.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats mounted a full-throated campaign to defend the healthcare law, using the repeal effort to increase support for a measure that, overall, never gained popularity with the public.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who as Speaker shepherded the reform law to passage last year, staged a hearing on Tuesday featuring testimony from citizens who said they’d be negatively affected by repeal.
“Democrats have made a firm commitment: that we will judge every proposal that comes before us as to whether it creates jobs, strengthens the middle class and reduces the deficit. The repeal of the patients’ rights fails on all three counts,” Pelosi said.
The secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, Kathleen Sebelius and Tom Vilsack, respectively, attended the House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday morning.
The Health and Human Services Department also released a report indicating that nearly 130 million Americans under the age of 65 have pre-existing conditions that could cause them to lose their health coverage if the reform law is repealed.
Sebelius highlighted those findings Wednesday, arguing that the sheer number of beneficiaries should give repeal supporters pause.
“People talk about repeal as political theater or symbolism,” Sebelius told reporters in the Capitol before Wednesday's debate began. “It isn't symbolic to the 129 million Americans with health conditions who now are locked out or priced out of the market. And it sure isn't symbolic to those working families who desperately need health security for themselves and their families and are looking forward to the day when they, indeed, will have that kind of security.”
Democrats have said they would be open to tweaking the new law but oppose wholesale changes. Boehner seized on the comments to push for repeal. “If we agree that this law needs improving, why would we keep it on the books?” the Speaker said.
Republicans will bring up a measure on Thursday to instruct House committees to draft replacement legislation.
There is no timetable for that bill, however, and Boehner said Wednesday he saw no need to set “artificial deadlines” for the committees to complete legislation.
Democrats have been giving Republicans flak for repealing some of the law’s consumer protections — including coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions and the ability for grown children to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 — without a plan to replace them.
“Repeal and replace” had been the GOP’s campaign mantra.
The repeal vote was delayed a week after the shooting of Giffords on Jan. 8, and lawmakers from both sides demonstrated visible restraint in their rhetoric regarding the bill. While Republicans have not removed the “job-killing” description from the official title of the repeal bill, none of the six party leaders holding a press conference Wednesday used that term; instead, they referred repeatedly to the 2009 law as “job-destroying” legislation.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a Tea Party leader, called the healthcare law “the crown jewel of socialism.” She said Republicans would “repeal the president” and “repeal the Senate” and “continue to fight until ObamaCare is no longer the law of the land.”
Mike Lillis, Pete Kasperowicz and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 9:30 p.m.