Health Care, Debt Ceiling Top Congress Agenda

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As Congress returns to business in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, lawmakers plan to debate the repeal of the new health care law and raising the debt ceiling.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For a bit more on Haiti and all things political, we're joined, as we are most Mondays, by NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Cokie, you were in Haiti earlier this month and spoke to U.S. officials about the situation there. What did they say and what does this arrival of Baby Doc mean for the situation?

ROBERTS: Well, obviously it was completely unexpected and I suspect very unwelcome, because it's just going to be more chaos. The U.S. government is trying to convince President Preval to hold an honest second round of elections, without his candidate in the running. And they feel very strongly the need to get a new person in so reconstruction can get going.

I mean, now it's so hampered by the government. There are no building codes. There are no land titles cleared, so that people can decide to put up a school, or a hospital, or housing on land because they're not sure whose land it is.

And Baby Doc's return is likely to just set things back, even more than cholera has, by throwing the entire situation into just greater confusion. So, you know, another big issue for a very troubled country.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's switch gears here and turn to politics in the United States. The House Republicans plan to take up the repeal of the big health care law this week. They postponed, as I think people know, last week, because of the shootings in Tucson. Do you think the debate will reflect a new tone in Washington?

ROBERTS: Well, the debate starts tomorrow, so we'll see. Members of both parties are calling for a measured, thoughtful conversation as opposed to name calling and hurtling accusations. Some Democrats are even saying they look forward to it. Here's New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): First, we welcome, in a certain sense, their attempt to repeal it, because it gives us a second chance to make a first impression.

ROBERTS: Senator Schumer was speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," where, by the way, he and Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican of Oklahoma, said they would sit together to watch President Obama's State of the Union next week. And that's become something of a symbol of the tone in Washington, whether Democrats and Republicans can watch that speech without the usual partisan cheering or jeering.

But, you know, frankly Renee, it's easy for the Democrats not to get too hot and bothered about this health care repeal, because they know it's not going anywhere. I mean, it's not going to pass the Democratic Senate. It certainly would never get a presidential signature, and the real question on the substance of health care is whether Republicans succeed, down the line, in cutting off funds to implement some parts of the legislation rather than this wholesale repeal, which is basically symbolic.

MONTAGNE: The other very big issue is the government's growing debt. It's now surged to $14 trillion, just under the legal limit, so Congress has to vote to raise the ceiling, but the politics of doing so in a recession are very tricky. I mean, how are the parties approaching it? The Republicans are absolutely saying no. But?

ROBERTS: Well, the debt ceiling is always problematic. Nobody likes to vote to raise it, but it becomes part of the downside of holding the majority. If you don't raise the limit, the government could be in a position of not honoring its obligations to everyone, from Social Security recipients to defense contractors. And of course you could have a government shutdown, and that didn't work so well for the Republicans the last time that happened when they were in control of Congress and a Democratic president was in the White House. But these Republicans are getting pressure from outside Congress. Here's Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty - former governor:

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Governor, Republican, Minnesota): As to the federal government, they should not raise the debt ceiling. I believe they should pass legislation, allow them to sequence the spending as the revenues come in to make sure they don't default, and then have the debate about what other spending can be reduced.

ROBERTS: Now he was talking on Fox News Sunday. Pawlenty, of course, is a likely presidential candidate for 2012. And yes, Renee, that election is already upon us and will have a big impact on Republicans in Congress as the year goes forward.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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