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As governance proceeds after shootings, a test for comity

House Republicans say they will proceed with a vote next week to repeal Obama's healthcare law, igniting a potentially divisive debate. Meanwhile, a Democratic group proposes that lawmakers sit intermingled during the State of the Union speech.

January 14, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — House Republicans said Thursday they would proceed with a vote next week to repeal President Obama's healthcare law, igniting a potentially divisive debate amid calls for comity in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings.

The GOP's decision to reschedule the vote comes as a moderate Democratic group has asked lawmakers to sit intermingled with one another — rather than on partisan sides of the aisle — as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill during Obama's upcoming State of the Union speech.

Taken together, the actions show the delicate balance facing elected officials as they seek to return to governing amid stark policy differences and heed the public's call for a more civil discourse after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson that left six dead and 13 injured.

"As the White House noted, it is important for Congress to get back to work, and to that end we will resume thoughtful consideration of the healthcare bill next week," said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader.

"It is our expectation that the debate will continue to focus on those substantive policy differences surrounding the new law," she said.

Democrats appeared resigned that the repeal vote on their signature achievement of the last Congress would be forthcoming. The bill will probably pass in the House, where Republicans hold the majority, but is unlikely to advance in the Senate.

Yet as House Republicans were sequestered at their annual retreat in Baltimore, it remained unclear how the GOP's plans for a likely two-day debate on the healthcare law could be achieved without engendering the vitriol that characterized much of partisan discourse the last few years.

"This will be a bit of a road test," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "You have to test the water at some time, and people will have to make the decision on how we proceed and how we comport ourselves."

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) was gathering support from senators for the proposal to have members of Congress sit with one another during Obama's speech Jan. 25.

Members traditionally sit on either side of the chamber with their party, creating high theatrics as one side rises in applause while the other "sits glumly on their hands and scowls," said Matthew Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank that initiated the suggestion.

"This struck us as a gesture, to be sure, but an important one the public would notice," he said.

Democratic leaders were considering the proposal, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority leader, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who said it was worth "serious consideration."

"We need to look for more ways to be bipartisan," Reid said. "After this tragedy, it's important for our country to see that we all stand together as Americans, and this could be one way to demonstrate that."

But House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky were not inclined to provide any directives to their members to cross party lines.

"Members of the House can sit where they like during the State of the Union, as always," said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith. A spokesman for McConnell issued a similar response.

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