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House Democrats poised to fight as minority

Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others denounce the Republican effort to repeal last year's healthcare overhaul.

January 04, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro and Paul West, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — As President Obama returned to Washington on Tuesday urging Republicans to continue the cooperative spirit that marked the end of the last Congress, Democrats on Capitol Hill went on the attack, vowing to battle to preserve their legislative accomplishments despite a newly diminished position.

Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) denounced the Republican-led effort to repeal last year's healthcare overhaul, saying such a move would "do very serious violence to the national debt and deficit."

Other Democratic leaders also defended the law, a signature Democratic achievement that is now a cornerstone of the GOP's "cut and grow" strategy of shrinking government to create jobs.

"Every minute wasted on trying to repeal healthcare reform fruitlessly is one less minute the Republicans will spend on job creation and turning this economy around," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Obama remained above the fray, shrugging off the heated political rhetoric as something that "happens in Washington."

"But I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we're creating a competitive economy for the 21st century," he said.

The variance between the White House and Democratic lawmakers reflects the markedly differing priorities they hold as the 112th Congress opens Wednesday.

Obama must rely on a sizable amount of help from Republicans, who now control the House and have greater sway in the Senate, to accomplish his legislative goals.

The president's House Democratic allies, now deeply in the minority, must use whatever power they hold to counter the GOP agenda.

By going on the attack, Pelosi and the House Democrats are attempting to make the best of a weak hand.

"The next two years are going to be really rotten for the House Democrats," said political scientist Jack Pitney, who worked for House Republicans in the early 1980s, a period comparable to today.

Back then, Republicans in the House were the minority under a Republican president, Ronald Reagan — the same unenviable position in which House Democrats find themselves with a Democrat in the White House.

When Obama needs House Democratic votes, he will almost assuredly get them. In the Senate, the political situation is different. Nearly two dozen Democratic senators are up for reelection in 2012, many from conservative states. They must weigh the consequences of their votes this year.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are able to freelance as the opposition party to the majority Republicans, a role the Democrats quickly seized on the eve of the new Congress with a preemptive strike to the Republican agenda.

As the GOP prepared to formally take control of the House on Wednesday, incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) outlined his party's priorities, insisting next week's scheduled vote to repeal the healthcare law was an imperative for the voters who propelled the GOP to power.

Cantor was questioned by reporters about the GOP view that reversing healthcare will help the economy at a time of joblessness and fragile recovery.

"We just need to repeal it, as the American people have spoken out and said," Cantor said.

That is an argument that played well on the campaign trail but may have less resonance now, Democrats are betting. Some provisions of the new health law took effect Jan. 1, benefitting seniors, those with preexisting medical conditions, young adults and others.

Particularly on this issue, Democrats appear unwilling to cede the war of words after having failed last year to successfully influence public opinion as the bill was signed into law.

Eagerly taking a page from the Republican playbook, Democrats argued in fiscal terms Tuesday that the GOP was breaking its campaign promise not to increase the debt.

The healthcare law is projected to save $143 billion over the next decade, so its repeal would cost the federal government a huge sum of money. Nonetheless, Republican leaders exempted the healthcare law's repeal from new GOP spending restrictions.

Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) called it, "Enron-type accounting," referring to the Texas energy company that had engaged in widespread accounting fraud.

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