WASHINGTON — In a symbolic show of opposition, resurgent House Republicans are eyeing an early up-or-down vote to repeal the Obama administration's health care overhaul, though a successful overturn of the controversial measure is well beyond their reach.
Even if a proposal passes the soon-to-be GOP-controlled House of Representatives, it's unlikely to go any further, considering the Democrats' control of the Senate and President Barack Obama's power to veto legislation.
But with many of the law's provisions years away from implementation, the GOP can use its new House majority to slow the measure's funding and progress through a gantlet of congressional hearings, investigations, aggressive oversight and legislative delays. A conservative commentator called the guerrilla warfare-like tactic "defund, delay and debunk."
The real value of the House vote is to show disgruntled voters that GOP lawmakers haven't conceded defeat on the president's signature domestic-policy triumph, said James Capretta, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"It sends a signal to the people that put them in power that (House Republicans) are going to keep faith with them in terms of their priorities. It really needs to happen," Capretta said.
A House vote also will help, from a public awareness standpoint, keep the controversial law in play for the 2012 elections.
"We can — and should — propose and vote on straight repeal, repeatedly," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told an audience Thursday at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But we can't expect the president to sign it. So we'll also have to work, in the House, on denying funds for implementation, and, in the Senate, on votes against its most egregious provisions."
Because funding for many provisions in the law is authorized but not appropriated, James Gelfand, health policy director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said there'd be numerous opportunities for Republicans to hold up the funding train. He cited as a prime example funding for thousands of new IRS agents to enforce provisions of the law.
"I don't expect Speaker Boehner to be eager to throw away money on anything he doesn't approve of in the bill, so there are going to be huge amounts of things in the bill that won't be funded," Gelfand said, a reference to Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Tevi Troy, a Republican health strategist and visiting senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, cautioned eager Republicans against changing many unpopular portions of the law. He said the revisions would make the measure more palatable to the public and consequently dampen desire to see the law overturned in 2012.
Capretta said Republicans should resist the temptation to go it alone on opposing the health law. He urged them to court centrist and conservative Democrats who could be vulnerable in the 2012 elections.
With hundreds of new Republican state legislators and a handful of new GOP governors, states also will play a crucial role in slowing implementation of the law, said Nina Owcharenko, director of health policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. She cited a lawsuit by 20 states challenging the law's requirement that citizens buy health insurance or pay a fine as the kind of state-led initiative needed to help topple the measure.
"I'm hopeful that the states continue this focus not only by pushing back on the federal government, but also pushing back by forging ahead with their own reforms," Owcharenko said.
On the campaign trail, some Republican candidates had talked confidently about repealing the law, but most observers realized the odds were long.
That alone prompted Tommy Thompson, the health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush, to question whether targeting the law is worthwhile.
"When it's all said and done, you're not going to be able to repeal health care because President Obama is not going to sign it. And they don't have enough votes to override a veto, so why push a cart uphill when you know it's not going to be able to get to the top?" Thompson said this week in an interview on CNBC.
While the economy and jobs topped voter concerns in this week's election, the political potency of health care reform hasn't been forgotten. On Wednesday, McConnell said the law became a "tipping point" for voter anger and "a metaphor for the government excess that we've witnessed over the last two years."
In a news conference the same day, Obama defended the law and its many popular provisions, such as no coverage exclusions for people with pre-existing illnesses.
"I don't think you'd have a strong vote for people saying, 'Those are provisions I want to eliminate,' " Obama said.
But no one seems more intent on doing just that than Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican. In August 2009, Barton told Fox News that "in the next Congress I'll be Chairman Joe Barton of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and we'll repeal it."
Barton's chairmanship is far from certain, following his infamous "apology" to BP after he called its Gulf Coast oil spill compensation fund a "$20 billion shakedown." He's pushing for the seat, and he recently outlined seven concerns about the law that he'd investigate within six months of getting the post.
Specifically, Barton wants to talk with Medicare Chief Actuary Richard Foster about cost and spending estimates for the overhaul bill and when they were first available. He wants HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Dr. Donald Berwick, the Medicare and Medicaid chief, to testify before the committee more often.
Barton also wants to know more about HHS' use of government money to promote Medicare improvements and whether Sebelius improperly told insurers not to blame rate increases on the new law.
"I think we're just 10 hearings away from finding the workaday details of how the Obama administration's health and economics policies turned massive, stunningly expensive, unworkable and unwanted," Barton wrote last week in a Washington Times editorial.
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