Updated at 8:32 a.m. on January 18.
An immediate and rugged test comes today for all the promises of a more sober, civil tone in Washington as House members return to work with the incendiary Republican effort to repeal the 2010 health care law.
And then things may only get hotter.
By week’s end, President Obama is scheduled to huddle with House Democrats at the annual retreat, in a build-up to his State of the Union speech next Tuesday, while the GOP House majority will be pressing ahead with legislation to slash non-security spending to fiscal 2008 levels. That proposal may come to a floor vote as soon as next week.
For some, this week will also bring the sidelight of bittersweet reflections about another young president’s speech to the nation. On Thursday, lawmakers and guests are set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda.
But with seven hours of floor debate set right away for today on the GOP’s repeal bill -- and an up-or-down vote set for Wednesday -- the new era of civility will get tested right away. Even sincerest intentions about staying issues-focused or being more careful about the partisan tone will run smack into the reality that the fight over health care has been and will remain a rhetorical powder keg.
At least the Senate is not in session this week to amplify the debate, and its schedule when members do return is undetermined, but one thing is certain, Democrats who control that chamber say they have no intention of taking up the House Republicans’ health care repeal bill.
There will be other complicating factors: Some leaders and members of tea party groups who take credit for helping Republicans win the House majority last November are gathering in Washington this week to monitor the repeal vote on the health care legislation that helped inspire their movement.
“The first step to repeal happens this week, and Tea Party Patriots will be there to support those of you who want to come,” announced an e-mail to the group’s members Monday.
While this week’s health care battle will likely dominate the news, the short congressional work week will not be totally about the repeal bill.
Eyes and concerns, of course, will remain on Tucson and on the medical conditions of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others whose lives were altered by a gunman more than a week ago, and there will be some jockeying for position in advance of the State of the Union address. Some Republicans and Democrats have been saying they may even sit together during the speech as a symbol of greater civility and maybe even bipartisanship.
Republicans and Democrats have always been able to sit wherever they like; there are no assigned seats. In fact, the most coveted seats among members of both parties have been the aisle seats, where they can be seen on national TV glad-handing the president, regardless of his party, as he walks into the House chamber, with the party of the lawmaker in the next seat often not mattering at all.
As the week wears on, the partisan prognostication about what Obama is expected to say about the direction of the country -- or even the direction of his own presidency -- will grow more intense, but in some ways the president’s biggest task may be to measure up to the bar he set with his Arizona memorial speech, which remains so fresh in the public mind.
House Democrats may get a small preview on Friday night when Obama meets with them at their annual issues conference, being held this year in Cambridge, Md. Earlier on Friday, in the afternoon, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the conference.
More than anything, at least for House Republicans eager to move on their campaign promises of repealing the health care law, curbing spending, and scaling back federal regulations, this week is about finally getting to work on the core mission, even if it is in a climate altered by the shootings in Arizona.
“It’s like a new beginning,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Friday, of how Republicans are eager to get started on their agenda, with the health care bill first up.
Republicans insist that their action represents more than a symbolic assault against Obama’s signature legislative achievement, or simply going through the motions of keeping a campaign commitment to hold such a vote. And such enthusiasm seems untempered by the fact the Senate Democrats say they won’t take up the health bill, or that Obama wouldn’t sign it.
“I believe it is our responsibility to do what we say we’re going to do,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, earlier this month. “We’re going to do everything we can over the course of however long it takes to stop this,” he said of the health care bill.
Quickly after Wednesday’s vote, for instance, Republicans will move to action on a resolution directing health committees to write alternative legislation that replaces aspects of the current law. The goals include many of the usual GOP health reform directives, including reducing insurance premiums, expanding coverage, overhauling medical malpractice laws, and increasing competition.
On Monday, the House Rules Committee announced it will hold a hearing to mark up a resolution geared toward another GOP election promise -- to reduce federal non-security spending to fiscal 2008 levels, “through a transition.” The bill, expected to go the House floor for a vote next week, directs Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to put the 2008 levels in place, says a House Rules spokeswoman, Jo Maney.
Appearing at last week’s Republican issues retreat in Baltimore, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour reminded reporters that Republicans only control the House, and “don’t run the government.” As a result, he said, House Republicans can’t pass bills unless the president agrees to them, but they can “try to stop bad things from going through,” including by eliminating funding or policies.
Don't expect House Democrats to sit idly by. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee will be holding an open hearing at 1 p.m. today on the Republicans’ health law repeal bill. Parents of young children, and young adults, small-business owners, seniors, and those with preexisting medical conditions are expected to testify during the hearing.
“This is the one and only hearing scheduled in Congress where Americans already benefiting from patients’ rights can have their voices heard before the Republican-planned repeal vote,” said Pelosi.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report incorrectly identified House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.