As lawmakers promise a new era of comity after the Arizona shooting attack that left six dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in critical condition, Republican leaders grappled with how and when to return to an issue that brought political discourse to a boiling point.
A House vote to repeal the healthcare law, put on hold after Saturday's shooting of 19 people in Tucson, presents Republicans with an unexpected challenge.
If they move too quickly, GOP leaders risk appearing tone deaf to pleas to reject overheated rhetoric — the leading of example of which is the healthcare debate last year.
But if they delay the vote much longer, they could infuriate their most conservative supporters and "tea party" activists.
GOP leaders have avoided discussing the timing of any votes, although the House is expected to resume some of its business next week. Meanwhile, they've taken a softer tone and emphasized calls for unity.
"Regardless of what legislation is considered next week, we hope all members remain focused on substantive policy differences," said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Fallon added that Cantor believed that "this institution has an obligation to move forward doing the business of the people at the appropriate time."
GOP officials could announce a decision Thursday on when that will be. Republicans must be mindful of the national mood and they also must be aware that, for some, the clock is ticking.
"This is not the serious getting-down-to-business in Congress that people voted for," said Andrew Ian Dodge, a tea party leader in Maine who said he had heard from other activists frustrated by the delay on the vote. "I think it's a mistake. It shows a sort of lack of spine and will and it's disappointing."
On Capitol Hill, the discussion fell along party lines.
"I think we should proceed as fast as we can and faster if possible," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).
Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) called that approach a mistake. "I think good judgment would say, let's extend this period of healing before the House returns to something as divisive as healthcare," he said.
Republican leaders sought to encourage healing this week, putting all legislative business on hold as lawmakers received security briefings.
On Wednesday, when the repeal vote was supposed to have been held, lawmakers instead paid tribute to Giffords and Gabriel Zimmerman, an aide killed in the shooting. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) asked for bipartisanship.
"We know that we gather here without distinction of party," Boehner said in a brief floor speech in which he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. "The needs of this institution have always risen above partisanship."
Still, the business of politics continued quietly. Republicans planned to meet for an annual closed-door retreat starting Thursday.
Repeal of the healthcare law has been a cornerstone of the Republican agenda since the legislation passed last March. Although repeal is not expected to win Senate approval — and would be vetoed by President Obama if it did — lawmakers promised to make the vote the first act of the new GOP-led House.
For others, passage of the healthcare overhaul still evokes images of political rancor, with GOP congressmen cheering on protesters outside the Capitol, and a black Democratic lawmaker saying healthcare opponents swore at him and made racially charged remarks. Physical threats against lawmakers increased.
"I think we all have a little bit of PTSD about the last healthcare debate," said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), using the acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder. Both sides agreed that the tone of any future debate should be less inflammatory.
But the difference between inflammatory and passionate argument remained in dispute — a sign that a new healthcare debate could resemble the last one.
In an interview Tuesday, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek) stood by his assertion that repealing the law would lead to "more Americans dying."
"Those are the facts. That speaks directly to the bill without speaking to individuals," Garamendi said.
Rep. Ted Poe (R- Texas), who has described the healthcare law as totalitarian, reiterated that characterization. "The health reform bill is totalitarian," he said. "It's the government telling people what they can and can't do about their healthcare. I stand by the comment; I would make it again."
Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.