WASHINGTON — Born of bloodshed, a self-proclaimed Age of Civility dawned in Congress on Tuesday. Republicans and Democrats of the House spoke without angry shouts and debated legislation to repeal the nation’s year-old health care law without rancor.
By unspoken agreement, manners mattered, although there were few overt references to the reason – the shooting rampage in Arizona 10 days ago that left six dead, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wounded and lawmakers of both parties stunned.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said no directives had gone out to rank-and-file lawmakers cautioning them about their behavior as the House convened to debate a highly controversial bill.
“We expect the debate to ensue along policy lines,” he said, suggesting one that did not stray from the merits of the legislation itself.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat, agreed.
“My expectation is that members will heed their own advice and will address the issues in a way that will deal with them on the merits,” he said. In the past, he added, too much of the public debate was “about incitement rather than informing . about making people angry, disrespecting the … point of view of the other side.”
The change in tone was evident from the opening moments of the debate about a bill Republicans promised in last fall’s campaign to make an early 2011 priority.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., referred to the “job-destroying health care bill” that President Barack Obama won from a Democratic-controlled Congress last year. It was a small but notable change from “job-killing” – the term Republicans had invariably preferred before the shootings in Arizona.
A few moments later, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., took a moment to congratulate Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas on his ascension to chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee. It was a post Conyers was forced to surrender when the GOP won a majority in last fall’s elections.
A vote on the legislation is set for Wednesday. Its passage is not in doubt in a House now controlled by Republicans who voted against the health care bill a year ago, plus newcomers who campaigned on its repeal. Democrats are expected to vote overwhelmingly if not unanimously against the GOP measure.
The White House has said Obama will veto the bill if it reaches his desk, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. has vowed not to let it get that far.
At a news conference, Cantor challenged Reid to reconsider his earlier statements that he would not call for a vote on the measure. “He should bring it up for a vote if he’s so confident he’s got the votes,” the House majority leader said.
Barring Senate approval of the repeal measure, Cantor said House Republicans “will do everything we can to delay and defund the health care bill.” That, too, would require approval by the Senate and a presidential signature, unlikely events that suggest a protracted struggle over the bill that Democrats passed a year ago.
Republicans postponed the debate and vote on the repeal legislation from a week ago, when lawmakers were still reeling from the shootings in Arizona. In the interim, lawmakers in both houses and both parties have spoken publicly of a need for greater civility in Congress, an institution that many also have noted is designed to permit deep differences to be argued out.
In a symbolic move, some members of Congress have announced plans to sit next to lawmakers of the opposing party next week when Obama delivers his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
Still, Democrats, Republicans and outside political groups began maneuvering for political advantage within hours of the shootings, and it will be months before the long-term effects of the episode in Arizona on Congress are clear.
And for sure, there were exceptions Tuesday to the rule of restraint that seemed to be in effect.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., his voice rising as he addressed Republicans, said, “What in the world are you guys doing” before he caught himself in midsentence. “What in the world are our colleagues doing” he said in more tempered tone of voice before going on to challenge their effort to repeal the bill.
Across the aisle, Reps. Jeff Landry, R-La, and Joe Walsh, R-Ill., both referred to the existing law as “job killing,” the reference Ryan and other more senior members of their party had sheathed.
While lawmakers toned down the debate, the Obama administration released a study saying repeal of the existing law could threaten between 50 million and 129 million nonelderly men, women and children with denial of affordable health insurance because they have pre-existing medical conditions.
The administration built its estimate on changes in the law that already have taken effect or might take effect by 2014.
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee issued a point-by-point rebuttal that said the administration’s claim was vastly overstated and accused Democrats of “scare tactics.”
Republicans have promised to replace the existing law with legislation that protects patients and makes affordable coverage more widely available.
A companion measure to the repeal legislation directs several committees to produce a replacement measure but does not include any timetable.