Rhetorical barbs pierce civil debate

Debate over repealing the healthcare law showed hints that tempering the angry, partisan tone of recent years is easier said than done.

While most of the debate was civil, and members of each party appeared to restrain their aggression toward the other side, there were also clear signs that lawmakers are beginning a slow return to the heated political rhetoric that dominated much of the last few years. 

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Front and center was Rep. Steve Cohen, a liberal Tennessee Democrat who launched an attack Tuesday night that compared the Republicans’ tactics to those of the Nazis.

“They don’t like the truth, so they summarily dismiss it,” Cohen, who is Jewish, said of the Republicans. “They say it’s a government takeover of healthcare. A big lie, just like [Nazi propaganda minister Joseph] Goebbels. 

“You say it enough and you repeat the lie, repeat the lie, repeat the lie until eventually people believe it. Like blood libel, that’s the same kind of thing,” he added. “The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it, and you have the Holocaust.”

The debate took place less than two weeks after an Arizona shooting rampage targeting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who remains hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the head. 

The shooting caused lawmakers to scrap their plans to vote on healthcare repeal last week and spurred newfound promises from both parties to soften the sharp partisan attacks that have practically defined Washington politics in recent years.

Most lawmakers made good on those promises, though on the Republican side of the aisle, Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) declined to avoid belligerent references on the House floor.

“Today House Republicans are going to stand with the American people and vote to repeal their government takeover of healthcare lock, stock and barrel,” Pence said, tapping a figure of speech referring to the key parts of a gun.

In an interview with The Hill, Pence said he continues to use the phrase because he believes clear communication and consistency are important.

“I think it’s important that we speak plainly, that we speak confidently and that we speak respectfully,” he said. “In this case I think I did that.”

Other Republicans appeared to tone down their language. 

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), for instance, was careful to replace the phrase “job-killing” with “job-crushing” and “job-destroying” when referring to the healthcare law on his website and his comments on the floor. The GOP’s repeal bill is called the “Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Act.”

Other Republican leaders followed suit, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who has likewise refrained from using “job-killing” since the Arizona tragedy Jan. 8.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that Democratic leaders did not specifically ask the members of their caucus to temper the vitriol during the healthcare repeal debate, but he expected that they would.

“My expectation is that members will heed their own advice, and the advice of others, and will address the issues in a way that will deal with them on the merits,” Hoyer said. 

“Too much of the public debate — particularly in the media — is about incitement rather than informing. It’s about making people angry [and] disrespecting the other point of view or the other side,” Hoyer added. “We have a responsibility to try to focus debate ... in a way that does not incite, but that informs.”

Hoyer’s office did not respond Wednesday to questions about Cohen’s comments. 


Jordan Fabian and Josiah Ryan contributed to this report.