Legislative fireworks, not protest drama, for this healthcare vote

A week into the new Congress, Democrats and Republicans have sharpened their messages on the healthcare reform law as House Republicans prepare to repeal the overhaul next week.

Democrats, who have been criticized by party members for not defending the law before the midterm elections, have assembled an offense portraying the repeal effort as a time-waster, a promise-breaker and as dangerous to Americans.

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Republicans argue they were swept into office with a mandate to repeal the reform law, which they have branded a “job-killer.”

But despite the legislative fireworks, the Capitol will likely be a quiet scene for Wednesday’s scheduled vote on repealing the healthcare reform law — unlike March’s mob of shouting protesters that inspired Democrats to do a defiant pre-vote march past demonstrators led by a gavel-wielding Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Capitol Police said they haven’t received any permit applications for groups to assemble on Capitol grounds that day, but they declined to comment on whether there would be heightened security measures for the vote.

With the House virtually guaranteed to pass the repeal, given the new Republican majority, Tea Party groups that effectively mobilized protesters when the reform law was debated will largely stay home.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who heads the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, told The Hill his group doesn’t have plans to rally. Tea Party Express, which organizes protests around the country, said its members won’t flood Washington for the vote.

The leader of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a conservative group that sponsors other like-minded groups, said he wasn’t aware of any demonstrations planned for Wednesday, adding there is little need to do so now that House Republicans have the numbers on their side.

"We don’t have to quite do the demonstration thing to convince people that there's real opposition to this, which for a couple of years, we had to,” said ATR President Grover Norquist.

The pro-reform group Americans United for Change won’t head to the Capitol, opting instead to issue press releases challenging House Republicans to drop congressional benefits as long as they oppose the reform law.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), which is challenging the reform law in federal court, has mobilized an effort to e-mail and call lawmakers, but is not planning a presence at the vote.

"Our guys can't get away from their businesses in the middle of the week, especially in an economy like this,” said NFIB spokeswoman Stephanie Cathcart. “But we really have been leading the charge on this.”

At least one pro-reform group is making a spirited effort to support the healthcare law on Wednesday. Families USA is organizing about 40 groups supporting the reform law in a Capitol Hill event, but too many fireworks shouldn't be expected. Supporters will gather in a Capitol Hill room to promote the reform law's benefits, and lawmakers aren't invited.

While protesters are laying low, lawmakers are gearing up for next week’s showdown.

Democrats have launched a multi-pronged attack on the GOP, with some arguing Republicans are wasting time on a bill that has virtually zero chance of gaining Senate support and would be destined for the president’ s veto pen anyway.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was recently tapped to help shape the House Democrats’ messaging machine, called the repeal effort “disturbing.”

“[Republicans] are going to spend thousands of hours of staff, floor and members’ time on something that isn’t going to happen and something that’s going to be incredibly harmful,” Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told The Hill.

New Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushed back against the criticism in a press conference this week, raising his voice when asked if he thought Republicans were spending too much time on a bill seemingly destined for failure.

“No, I do not,” Boehner said. “I believe it’s our responsibility to do what we say we’re going to do.”

Rhetoric ramped up after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the repeal bill would add $230 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years. Democrats accused the GOP of already breaking a campaign promise to reduce the deficit, while Republicans accused Democrats of rigging the CBO score with “budget gimmickry.”

“The CBO is entitled to its opinion,” Boehner said, casting doubt on the congressional scorekeeper’s numbers. Rules Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), comparing the CBO to an impartial referee, said questioning the CBO “sets a dangerous precedent.”

Democrats are also emphasizing the reform law’s numerous consumer protections, including a provision allowing young adults to stay on parents’ insurance until age 26, Medicare drug discounts for seniors in the “doughnut hole,” and new transparency and spending requirements for insurance companies.

Leading Senate Democrats warned this week they would block any repeal bill that doesn’t include the reform law’s consumer protections, and the Obama administration’s health department pushed out new state-specific numbers on the repercussions of repealing those provisions.

Meanwhile, some Democrats have been downplaying the repeal effort, emphasizing that it won’t gain much traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday said talk of the GOP efforts to repeal healthcare reform is “a bit of huff and puff." Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a liberal facing a tough reelection in 2012, was somewhat harsher, calling the repeal vote “a colossal waste of time.”

Friday showed flashes of last year’s heated rhetoric, with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) suggesting on the House floor the repeal bill will lead to “more Americans dying.” But the debate has been considerably more tame this time around.

Fury over the reform law reached a fever pitch last March as Congress hammered out the final reform law through reconciliation. Tea Party protesters swarmed the Capitol the final weekend of reform debate in what black House Democrats described as a racially charged scene.

Civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, said protesters hurled racial slurs at them, while Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), now chairman of the caucus, said protesters spit on him. Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said protesters lobbed anti-gay taunts at him. More than 1,000 people launched angry chants of “Nancy” in protest of then-Speaker Pelosi.


—Bob Cusack and Jordy Yager contributed to this article.