Reporting from Washington — With the Tucson shootings as a backdrop, the House began debating a Republican resolution Tuesday to repeal President Obama's healthcare overhaul.
Both sides took pains to dial back the heated rhetoric that accompanied passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last year.
Bitter debate over the issue helped cut short the careers of many congressional Democrats and ushered in a new political lexicon characterized by outbursts of "You lie!" and "Hell, no!" The conservative passions it generated helped Republicans win control of the House in November.
But on Tuesday, as lawmakers took up the GOP's "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," they were divided but restrained. The attempted assassination of one of their colleagues had prompted a renewed enthusiasm for civility in political discourse.
"Obviously there are strong feelings on both sides of the bill and we expect the debate to ensue along policy lines," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "We are going to be about decency here and engage and promote an active debate on policy."
The GOP largely ignored a Democratic effort to rename the bill in the wake of the Jan. 8 shootings in Arizona that killed six and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Republicans now mainly refer to the measure as the "job-destroying" healthcare law.
Democrats increasingly see value in promoting the law's strengths amid GOP calls for repeal, and doubt Republicans will deliver on crafting a promised replacement bill. They cited emotional stories of constituents who are benefitting from the law — particularly children who can no longer be denied insurance coverage for preexisting conditions.
"This bill isn't 'repeal and replace'; it's repeal and forget," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D- Texas) said during the debate.
Republicans pursued a largely economic and constitutional case against what they called a "budget-buster" law. They portrayed it as government overreach while the economy continues to struggle.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) called the law a "bureaucratic nightmare."
The legislative outcome will be no surprise: The House GOP is expected to pass the repeal easily by week's end, although it is not likely to advance in the Senate.
Democrats who control that chamber have no intention of taking up the bill, despite expected calls for an up-or-down vote from Republicans and their supporters.
Cantor challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the measure to the floor. "Let's see a vote," he said.
The GOP's pursuit of the weeklong debate carries political risks and rewards as the party fulfills a pledge to conservative voters, including its "tea party" allies, for a swift repeal vote.
In a new Associated Press-GfK poll this week, just 1 in 4 Americans surveyed supported full repeal, while a CNN/Opinion Research poll released Tuesday said 50% supported the repeal vote and 42% did not. Unlike CNN, the Associated Press poll gave respondents the option of saying they would like the law changed, a choice favored by 43%.
As the House began its debate, the Obama administration and its allies stepped up their campaign to defend the law and challenge the GOP to overturn its more popular provisions.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius unveiled a new report suggesting that as many as 129 million Americans with preexisting medical conditions could be unable to get insurance if the health law were repealed.
Because many of those people get health benefits at work, they have some protection. But millions of Americans still cannot get policies because of conditions like asthma, diabetes and cancer. Others face losing their insurance if they lose their jobs.
"Thanks to the protections in the Affordable Care Act, by 2014, those citizens will have the freedom and security that come with having quality and affordable health coverage," Sebelius said.
The law takes effect in stages, with protections for children already in effect. In 2014, insurers will be prohibited from denying coverage to adults with preexisting conditions.
One of the provisions opponents most detest also takes effect in 2014: the requirement that Americans get insurance or pay a fine.
Leading consumer groups, patient advocates, labor unions and other supporters of the law, including the influential AARP, intensified their pressure on lawmakers to oppose repeal.
Opponents, too, have been mobilizing. Leading business groups and tea party members kept up their demands that lawmakers proceed with the repeal vote.
Obama issued a statement late Tuesday that said he was "willing and eager to work with both Democrats and Republicans to improve the Affordable Care Act. But we can't go backward."