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The House voted to great fanfare, again, on Wednesday to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. And although the vote might have political implications for some Members, the process seemed like a drag to others.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) woke up at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday knowing full well the vote to repeal “Obamacare” was destined to die in the Senate.
“The thing that I don’t like about this job is you necessarily have to do some things for primarily political reasons,” he said in an interview in the Longworth House Office Building. “Let’s don’t kid ourselves or be naive about it. If something’s not going to become the law and you vote on it anyway, then you have to have a motive other than good legislating.”
Around the same time in the same building, Rep. William Lacy Clay was meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus at its weekly gathering.
“We’ve seen this act more than 30 times before. It’s just another one of their political stunts,” the Missouri Democrat said in a phone interview, taking a break from the meeting. “We know what the outcome is going to be.”
To underscore some of the strangeness of the day, there was even confusion about how many times the House has voted to repeal all or part of the law. GOP leaders say the number is now 33 times. Some Democrats said 31. Regardless, the ultimate result was the same. The House voted 244-185 to repeal the law.
The vote, as Gowdy pointed out, comes after the Supreme Court last month upheld the law’s individual mandate as appropriate under Congress’ authority to tax. Such a development could put some Democratic Senators on the spot, he said.
But still, when he came to Washington, D.C., he didn’t know how often the votes would be symbolic. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said, adding that he first realized that many of his votes were for show during last year’s debate over a continuing resolution.
“You’re voting on things in the middle of the night that you know have the same chance of becoming law as my son taking Kate Upton to the prom. Actually he may have more of a chance. It just has no chance,” the former prosecutor said. “So why do you do it? You do it because the jury’s watching. And instead of viewing this as a mini-trial, it’s a piece of evidence in a trial.”
An hour after the interview, as the House considered the repeal measure, Gowdy sat in the House chamber next to Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
Meanwhile, standing outside the chamber in the Speaker’s Lobby, Clay was ironically congratulating Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “We know the bill isn’t going anywhere once it gets to the Senate,” he said.
Clay, however, noted that for all the pointlessness of the vote, it is useful for his Member-vs.-Member primary campaign against Rep. Russ Carnahan in their St. Louis-based district.
“Oh, for sure, that’s why I got floor time,” he said, laughing.
Indeed, earlier in the day Clay had taken to the floor and, borrowing from the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey, called the health care law one of the “great moral issues of our time.”
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction from different constituent groups about my floor speech,” he said, noting that they sent the text out in an email blast. “‘Thanks a lot,’” is what they were saying. ‘Thank you for standing up for the [law] and people who are uninsured in this country.’”
But Clay knows it’s not so easy for some of his colleagues. As a House aide emerged from the chamber to read the vote tally, Clay perked up. Five Democrats had voted against the bill. “That sounds about right,” he said.
A few feet across the chamber’s aisle that divides where Republicans and Democrats sit, two of those Democrats — Reps. Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Mike Ross (Ark.) — huddled together with some of their colleagues.
The row was a who’s who of Democrats for whom the vote was brutal, such as Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Ben Chandler (Ky.). Were it not for their retirements, Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Dan Boren (Okla.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.), there as well, would also have had a tough vote.
Peterson had a fatalistic countenance, leaning back in his seat. Kissell’s facial expression was glum. From a distance, the mood appeared grim.
Walking off the House floor, Peterson, who voted with Democrats on the measure, expressed anger about the vote. “This vote is meaningless,” he said. “We’ve got real work to do around here, not do nonsense.”
Wielding the Speaker’s gavel was Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.). As colleagues socialized on the House floor, Emerson sat relatively isolated, sometimes hammering away on her BlackBerry.
She uses that time, she said, to learn about her colleagues, watching their interactions, noting that President Lyndon Johnson, widely regarded as a legislative master during his time in Congress, used to keenly observe his colleagues.
Unlike Gowdy, who has an extremely conservative district, Emerson’s district has a substantial number of Medicaid patients, a reason for her to carefully gauge their opinions on health care.
But during the recess last week, Emerson spent the week working in everyday jobs — as a coffee shop clerk, bank teller and other jobs. “Every person who actually recognized me … said, ‘Can you please, please get rid of Obamacare,’” Emerson said. She voted accordingly Wednesday.