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Democrats’ Hope for Unity Rests in Health Care Fight

Democrats Make GOP Floor Tactics the Issue

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Republicans reversed course on their pledge to run the House openly by pushing a health care repeal bill with no amendments and limited debate.

House Democrats hope to translate their success in exploiting a series of GOP missteps in their first days of power into the foundation for a more unified front, something they have sorely lacked since taking control of the chamber in 2006.

Democrats quickly set aside their internal problems last week and launched a successful, coordinated attack on the GOP’s effort to push through a health care repeal bill with little debate and no amendments.

Although Republicans have all the votes they need to win House passage of the repeal, Democrats succeeded in making the issue a debate on GOP legislative tactics rather than the merits of the health care law. And any time liberals and moderates can stand together in shared outrage, the chances improve for a broader Democratic unity.

“I hope so. I really do. Some of our differences are philosophical within our Caucus. But there is common ground. The repeal of health care doesn’t just affect a portion of the Democrats. It affects all of us … It’s a good starting point. There’s some common ground issues,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.

Republicans have long been known for their discipline, but Democrats have rarely been able to duplicate that. Indeed, the last time House Democrats were able to maintain near lock-step coordination was in the wake of the 2004 elections, when President George W. Bush attempted to reform Social Security. Democrats rallied around their opposition to that plan — and Bush — and ultimately regained control of the House and Senate in 2006.

And while such an outcome now may be extremely unlikely — Democrats do not have Bush to act as a foil and their internal conflicts remain significant — Democrats nevertheless said they have reason for hope, thanks to House Republicans.

“Minorities get united when the majority oversteps its bounds,” Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

“It’ll really unite us as a Caucus,” agreed Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), who called the GOP’s handling of the repeal measure “a rank political move.”

Even the Caucus’ Blue Dog Coalition — which has long been the problem child in the diverse House family of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.)  — has found common ground with liberals and their leadership.

A senior Democratic aide with ties to moderates said Democrats were “thrilled” that Republicans are going after what the aide described as an attempt at “gotcha” politics.

“It’s just so transparent what they are doing,” the aide said. “They are just appealing to the tea partyers.”

A GOP leadership aide dismissed any short-term unity or political gains Democrats may think they have seen from this week’s health care fight. “They’re united around defending a bill that already cost them 63 seats.  That’s not a strategy, that’s a political suicide pact.”

Still, Democrats of all stripes are sending one message.

Blue Dog leader Rep. Heath Shuler, who ran a symbolic campaign to replace Pelosi as party leader and who voted against the health care reform bill last year, said Republicans’ approach to health care was “immoral” and goes against the theme of Boehner’s speech to the House and what Republicans say they want to stand for.

“The Republicans are back to some same-old tactics all over again,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “This is a campaign promise that they have made  … so they recognize that.”

Another Blue Dog leader, Rep. Jim Matheson, said the health care replacement legislation Republicans are eyeing is just as politically driven as their repeal efforts.

“It’s not a bill,” the Utah Democrat said. “They’re fine-talking points. But that doesn’t talk about how to replace health care.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) pointed to GOP pledges to have a more open and transparent process and said the public had “witnessed no less than a full-scale reversal” on those promises.

Shuler said he only would support a replacement effort if Republicans made a good-faith effort and stopped “grandstanding and politicizing the process.”

“Why would you want to take that away from those people and start over?” Shuler said of the health care bill. “What we can do is keep the good things in place. … Let us replace those things, but we don’t have to repeal the entire process and start over.”

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