The Show Must Go On, If Just for Show

It's back to work for House Republicans next week, and the agenda and front-line language of their top priority--repealing President Obama's health care bill--will be as it was before an assassin tried, but failed, to assassinate one of the 219 Democrats who voted for it, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

The bill, H.R. 2, will still be called "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." The underlying rule governing debate on the measure has already been approved, and GOP leadership aides say it would be too difficult to amend the title. They've also assembled a raft of quotes from Obama and prominent Democrats using "job-killing" terminology as a shield they hope will deflect criticism that invoking "job-killing" now is politically tone-deaf and, to some, borderline inflammatory.

Seven hours of House debate will begin Tuesday with a final up-or-down vote on Wednesday that Republicans will win. That will set the stage for a bit of awkward visual theatre on January 25 when Obama, who won plaudits for his speech on Wednesday calling for a more civil political tone at the Tucson, Ariz., victims' memorial service, delivers his State of the Union address. The lines of policy aggression and antagonism will be sharply drawn in the House chamber even if, as has now been suggested, lawmakers abandon the partisan seating division and mix with one another on the floor. No matter the seating arrangements, the contrast will be unmistakable; Obama on the dais, defending in word and presence his most cherished legislative accomplishment as energized House Republicans sit beaming over their successful effort to repeal it--even though they know in this Congress the journey is quixotic.

Party strategists couldn't be happier.

"It was right and appropriate for the Republicans to take this week off," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. "But for Democrats to argue that because of an act of murder the government should change the direction of its policies, well, that's Beirut, that's not America. In 2008 it was 'Democrats won everything and should get their way.' In 2010 it was 'Republicans won an election and should compromise.' Nice try."

At least one House Democrat, Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, has called on Republicans to delay consideration of health care repeal, telling National Public Radio that next week is too soon to unleash a "divisive" struggle over a significant Democratic accomplishment. Andrews's voice is interesting because he played a big role in pushing health care through the House in 2010 and was one of two Democrats tabbed by GOP leaders to advise them during the postelection transition back to power.

But Republicans say waiting another week, as Andrews has suggested, would convey a sense of drift and lack of purpose on the part of an energized majority that opposes Obama on a number of policy fronts. Strategists say the risk for Republicans is not in moving forward but hesitating.

"The people expect this Congress to move forward with the nation's business," said GOP strategist Greg Mueller. "When will calls for delay come to an end? If there was one overriding issue of this past election, it is health care. Next week they have got to get back to business because in this economic climate this law overhangs everything and is creating uncertainty for job-creation."

As House Republicans meet in Baltimore to solidify this and other early legislative strategies, America continues to debate the direction of political discourse--not in direct relation to the Tucson shootings anymore--but the more nuanced question of whether polarization has pulled or is pulling the country apart. Republicans say that debate can continue while the House goes back to work and to delay action on health care repeal--a top campaign promise of the new majority--would discourage the country and suggest Republicans had accepted the premise, which they don't, that policy disagreements or rhetoric had anything to do with the madness in Tucson.  

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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