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."

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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.  

But even as Republicans press ahead, they might well heed new Pew Research data that shows early cracks in support for their agenda. Pew found 43 percent of respondents disapprove of the GOP agenda while 34 percent approve. Two months ago, 41 percent approved and 37 percent disapproved. Even factoring the natural volatility of polls about party agendas--single items like reducing spending, for example, might poll more favorably in isolation--the erosion of support among moderate and liberal Republicans appears significant.

Right after the election, moderate and liberal Republicans backed the party agenda 78 percent to 3 percent. Now, those numbers are 57 percent and 22 percent. Independents have grown weary, too. After the election, they narrowly backed GOP plans; 39 percent approved and 35 percent disapproved. Those numbers are now 30 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval.

The one glimmer of hope, or sign of reassurance, in the Pew data is that 58 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents want congressional leaders to "stand up to Obama," while 38 percent want them to "work with Obama." Among Republicans who agree with the tea party, the ratio was 72 percent to 24 percent in favor of confrontation.

GOP pollster David Winston, who advises House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has warned GOP leaders to avoid letting health care repeal efforts overshadow or obscure their focus on policies and debates focused on economic growth. Winston's postelection analysis revealed that jobs and the economy was the top issue for 54 of voters, compared to 12 percent who said health care. Concern over long-term unemployment, coupled with unease bordering on dread about the short-term future of the U.S. economy, fed voter hostility to Obama and Democrats, Winston found. As a result, Democrats, who won the independent vote by 18 points in 2006, saw Republicans win it by 19 points in 2010--a 5 percent increase over the total when the GOP won the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

Just as health care began to look to many voters like a Democratic obsession in 2009 and 2010--at the expense of a focus on the economy--Winston has warned Republicans to move quickly beyond health care repeal to push policies and debates focused on job creation. All of next week will be devoted to health care: debate of the repeal bill on Tuesday, the final vote on Wednesday, and a Thursday debate and vote on a resolution ordering House Republicans to develop, at the committee level, policy alternatives to "replace" Obama's health care law.

"Putting what the health care does in terms of the economy is important in this debate," Winston said. "What it does to small businesses and job creation. The challenge here will be disagreeing without being disagreeable. The key is to make it about policy and not personality."           

Two weeks ago, Republicans saw the health care debate as an unambiguous winner. As a matter of policy, they still do. But the earth has shifted and the nation's attention is now riveted on the fate of a congresswoman who survived a murderous assault and whose advocacy and support for Obama's health care law will be intertwined in Democratic defense of the law and their opposition to GOP tactics to repeal it. All this will echo on the House floor and the larger national debate while Giffords takes miraculous baby steps toward recovery--as she did Wednesday when she opened her eyes for the first time.

And Republicans must know the debate on health care they are driving next week will be watched--most likely nationwide--with eyes wide open. They will be seen and their agenda will dominate in ways unimaginable less than a week ago. And much of their success in the 112th Congress may turn on perceptions of their tone, tenacity, and tendencies in next week's debate.