With winter winds rustling her hair, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota rallied in front of the Capitol on Tuesday, flanked by House conservatives. Republicans, she pledged, will axe the controversial health-care law passed last year — or thwart its implementation until they can. She called Wednesday’s repeal vote “step one, phase one” in that effort.
“We are not going to just check the box off,” Bachmann declared, as firebrand freshmen and members of the Tea Party Caucus looked on. “We are staying full-square behind the repeal of Obamacare, and our commitment to defund it moving forward.”
GOP leaders are echoing her cry. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters Tuesday that Republicans will do “everything we can to delay and defund” the bill.
“We are going to be about trying to deliver on our commitment, to make sure that the Obamacare bill does not take full hold and effect,” Cantor said. “We believe very strongly that this is a bill whose numbers don’t quite jibe.”
House Speaker John Boehner, for his part, is eyeing how his conference can begin to peel apart the law, should this initial dismantling stall in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“You’ll see committees acting to highlight the flaws,” says Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman. On Thursday, for example, the House is set to debate on whether to instruct several committees to begin crafting a replacement bill.
Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), chairman of the influential House Committee on Energy and Commerce, tells NRO that he is ready for the long slog.
“After the House votes to repeal this bill in its entirety, we’ll move into the next phase: replacing it with compassionate, innovative, cost-reducing reforms,” Upton says. “We will use aggressive oversight to scrutinize the law and the bureaucracy that has been built up to implement it. We will shine a spotlight on individual aspects of the law and work to dismantle it piece by piece.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the Budget Committee chairman, is also ready to tangle. As the repeal debate unfolded on the House floor Tuesday, he spoke out against the health-care law and challenged his colleagues to unite in opposition. “This health-care law, if left in place, would accelerate our country’s path toward bankruptcy.” Obamacare, he argued, is a “fiscal house of cards.”
While the committee chairmen plot, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a leading repeal advocate, tells NRO that he will do everything he can to keep the House GOP motivated. Fleshing out Obamacare’s provisions via hearings and floor debate, he says, will be instrumental.
King says there is an endless list of areas where Republicans could begin to unravel the Obama overhaul in the run-up to 2012, when the GOP hopes to elect a Republican president and Senate to assist the cause. Until then, he hopes the House GOP will slash funds directed toward the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service, which is slated to enforce the individual mandate. Putting administration officials on the hot seat — to answer questions and keep Obamacare on the front burner of public debate — is another priority.
Come early March, King says, Republicans may get their first shot at defunding. When the continuing resolution to fund the government expires, he would like to see House leaders insert language into new stop-gap legislation that would “eliminate” Obamacare, and all of its parts, by prohibiting any money from going to it. “We could get this fight over with in late February and not have it clutter up the legislative calendar,” he says.
Cantor, who is enthusiastic about repeal, is less so about tying it to a continuing resolution, which, if left unsigned by the president, could cause a government shutdown. When asked Tuesday about the possibility of Obamacare funding being tethered to a CR, he demurred, saying the “focus” of the legislation will be on cutting discretionary-spending levels.
King tells us that he is not surprised by Cantor’s position. “It’s a high-stakes endeavor, I understand that,” he says. Still, he will continue to push for an early Obamacare fight beginning in late February. And conservative activist groups, such as DefundIt.org, are supportive of King’s idea. “Are Democrats really going to shut down the government just to protect their failed pet experiment?” asks Alex Cortes, the group’s chairman.
Republicans, sources say, will also look at tearing up the individual mandate. Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced a related bill last year. Such a move could draw bipartisan support in the Senate.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is prepping on that front. “By attacking the mandates, we take away the Democrats’ arguments against our calls for full repeal,” he explained to NRO last year. “Focusing on the mandates enables us to shine a light on the most unconstitutional aspects of this lousy piece of legislation. It compels them to talk specifics. Let’s remember that these mandates are the central tenets of Obamacare. Gut them and the law falls apart.”
While chatter about the mandate builds, King would like to see his comrades zero in, for the moment, on funding specifics. “We can’t retain any part of Obamacare; we need to pull it out by the roots,” he says. “We need to shut off the funding to all of the appropriations bills being used to implement or enforce Obamacare. That’s always been the sequence; that’s always been the strategy. We are on track.”
Bachmann, in an interview with NRO, says she shares King’s confidence, though she acknowledges that Republicans face an uphill climb over the next two years, since President Obama and Democratic senators are “heavily invested” in halting the repeal movement.
Bachmann, who calls Obamacare the “crown jewel of socialism,” reiterates that the GOP must be focused. “We need to press first on defunding, then on any legislative efforts to stop Obamacare’s bureaucratic nightmares from being instituted,” she says. “This is a tremendous opportunity for conservatives.”
As the first repeal vote approaches, President Obama’s allies are already at the barricades. Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS secretary, released a report Tuesday claiming that 129 million Americans with preexisting health conditions would be “at risk” of losing coverage if the GOP were to get its way. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, mused at his daily briefing that the House GOP’s maneuver was not a “serious legislative effort.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed not to consider it.
Bachmann and friends are not deterred. With over 20 states jointly challenging Obamacare in the courts, and a number of polls showing a majority of Americans supportive of repeal, they are hopeful that their early offensive will yield results. Wednesday’s showdown, predicts Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), is simply “the end of the beginning.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles, a Franklin fellow, contributed to this report.