SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
New year, new Congress, same old health care debate. At least that's how it sounded on the House floor yesterday. The new Republican majority started the process to repeal last year's sweeping healthcare overhaul. It's one of their top priorities. NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the preliminary round.
JULIE ROVNER: As the House settled in to debate the rule that would set up next Wednesday's big vote, there were a lot of new faces. But the arguments they made had a familiar ring to them. Here's Republican freshman Richard Nugent of Florida.
Representative RICHARD NUGENT (Republican, Florida): Everybody knows that the healthcare system's broken and that reform is needed. However, the unconstitutional job-killing mandates of Obamacare are not the answer.
ROVNER: Democrats are countering those arguments with a spirited defense of their own. They're focusing on some of the more popular provisions that are already in effect and helping their constituents.
California Congresswoman Doris Matsui talked about a young woman in her district who couldn't get insurance because she had a thyroid problem. The law helped her get back on her parents' health plan. She also talked about a senior named Gary who's getting help with his drug costs because he falls into the so-called donut hole in Medicare prescription drug coverage.
Representative DORIS MATSUI (Democrat, California): Repeal would mean that Gary and thousands of other seniors in my district would see no relief from this Part D donut hole. This is unacceptable.
ROVNER: Much of the debate on the repeal yesterday, though, centered on the cost of the massive law to the federal budget - just like it did last year, when the law first passed. Democrats argued then, and now, that the law is more than fully paid for; it actually reduces the deficit. And the Congressional Budget Office, Congress's official scoring referee, agreed.
So it was no surprise that on Thursday, CBO said repealing the law would add to the deficit. Specifically, it said it would add around $230 billion over the next 10 years.
But Republicans, like Indiana's Mike Pence, scoff at that notion.
Rep. MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): Only in Washington, D.C. could you say you were going to spend trillions of dollars and save people money. And this morning, only in Washington, D.C. could you say that repealing a $2.7 trillion government takeover of health care is actually going to cost money.
ROVNER: So Republicans have simply decided to ignore CBO when it comes to the health care law. They've exempted this bill from new rules that would otherwise require offsetting budget cuts for any bill that adds to the deficit. That's brought charges of hypocrisy from Democrats, including Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter
Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): Estimates provided by the CBO are the singular authoritative figures upon which we make all of our decisions and have for decades. Even if some don't like what the numbers tell us, we know that numbers don't lie.
ROVNER: But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he doesn't really blame the CBO; he blames the Democrats for giving the CBO bad numbers to work with.
Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): CBO scores what's put in front of them. There's nothing that has changed about the flawed assumptions underlying the old score of the Obamacare bill. Only the dates have changed. This is the same gimmicks, producing more false deficit reduction, and in fact real spending increases.
ROVNER: But whether the repeal bill increases the deficit or not doesn't really matter, because it's not likely to get very far after it passes the House next week. Democratic leaders in the Senate say they won't take it up in that chamber, and President Obama has already vowed to veto it in the unlikely event it reaches his desk.
So why are Republicans pursuing what they know is basically a symbolic action? Because they said they would. Here's how House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier put it.
Representative DAVID DREIR (Republican, California): The commitment was made that we would have an up-or-down vote on repeal, and that's exactly what we are doing.
ROVNER: And that vote is now scheduled for next Wednesday - after seven more hours of debate.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.