Health Care Takes Back Congressional Focus

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This week, the new 112th Congress picks up one of the hottest issues they'll face all year: whether to repeal the sweeping health law passed in 2010. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Julie Rovner about what to expect in the upcoming House debate over repealing the new health care law.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This week, the new 112th Congress picks up where it left off after an unplanned timeout following last weekend's shootings in Arizona. But lawmakers won't ease back in, they'll go right back to one of the hottest issues they'll face all year - whether to repeal the sweeping health law passed in 2010.

Joining us to talk about the debate and how the tone might change in the wake of the Arizona shootings is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Nice to see you, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Nice to be here.

HANSEN: Remind why the debate is happening now at the very beginning of the congressional session.

ROVNER: Well, it's something Republicans promised they would do during the elections. A number of these new members were elected with a vow to repeal this law. Now, the Republicans also know that this full repeal isn't going to go anywhere in the Senate. Even if it did, President Obama would veto it. So, it's really something - a vote they want to get over with and done so they can get on to other things, Plan B, if you will.

HANSEN: What's Plan B?

ROVNER: Well, Plan B is a little bit more serious. Republicans are working on lots of ways to do what they call throw sand in the gears of the implementation of this health law. There are things like trying to slow down or cut off funding for it, block some of the regulations and launch lots and lots of investigations into what they say are improper activities by federal officials in how they're putting the law into effect.

Now, I should also add that over in the Senate, Democrats, who still control things in that chamber, are planning a series of hearings of their own to try to help educate the public about what's in the law, so the public doesn't get such a one-sided message from the Republican House.

HANSEN: We mentioned tone. Do you think the tone of the debate will actually change given the events of the past week?

ROVNER: Well, it's still a little hard to tell. Some things haven't changed. The name of the bill they're voting on this week, for example, much to the dismay of some of the Democrats, is still the Repealing the Job Killing Health Care Law Act. But in some other ways, we're already seeing a marked different. For example, here's House majority leader Eric Cantor from a news conference with reporters the week before last.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia, Majority Leader): This is a job-killing health care bill. The bill itself spends entirely too much money. We know it's a trillion-dollar-plus price tag to the bill. That's money we don't have. And we just need to repeal it as the American people have spoken out.

ROVNER: Now, I have to add that Cantor isn't among the more fire-breathing Republicans. But in announcing that the vote was being rescheduled for this week, a spokeswoman for Cantor put out this statement. And I want to read from it because it's got a very, very different tone.

It says: As the White House noted, it's important for Congress to get back to work and to that end, we will resume thoughtful consideration of the health care bill next week. Americans have legitimate concerns about the cost of the new health care law and its effect on the ability to grow jobs in our country. It is our expectation that the debate will continue to focus on those substantive policy differences surrounding the new law.

HANSEN: Do you think the Democrats will tone things down as well?

ROVNER: Well, I imagine they will. You know, Republicans haven't been alone in using this heated rhetoric when it comes to health care. This was Ed Markey of Massachusetts on the floor the week before last.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The Republicans don't care, repeal shows they don't care about sick children with medical bills pushing families into bankruptcy, they don't care about grandma and grandpa who need help paying for prescription drugs.

HANSEN: Do you think a change in tone will have an effect on the outcome?

ROVNER: No. I think all the Republicans will vote for repeal, all the Democrats or virtually most of the Democrats will vote against repeal. But at least it may be a kinder and gentler debate.

HANSEN: NPR's health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Thanks, Julie.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

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