WASHINGTON – It is unfair to say Republicans have achieved nothing in their dozens of attempts since 2010 to repeal Obamacare.
In Tuesday’s repeal effort by House Republicans – their first of this Congress and their 56th overall – it became clear that they had succeeded at one thing: They had bored even themselves into a slumber.
For much of the debate Tuesday afternoon, no more than a dozen seats were occupied on the pro-repeal side of the House. More than once, the GOP had nobody available to speak.
“The Affordable Care Act is a civil rights act, and it’s got to be upheld,” argued Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter early in the debate.
Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas, leading the Republican side, had no one to offer a rebuttal. “I reserve,” he said.
Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky argued that “repealing the Affordable Care Act at this stage would be an absolute death sentence to thousands of people.”
“I reserve,” Burgess said again.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the Democrats’ floor leader at the time, asked if the Republicans had any more speakers – “because it seems like there’s no enthusiasm on your side.”
A few minutes later, Burgess had again run out of warm bodies. “May I inquire from the gentleman how many more speakers he has?” McGovern inquired.
There was a pause. “Uh. I have – I’ll be closing,” Burgess replied.
Those who did speak didn’t necessarily do it well. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, gave a passionate speech in support of … his home state. “Texans are a proud people, and we’ve been a proud people since the days of the Alamo and San Jacinto,” he said. “If Texas were its own country, it would have the 13th highest GDP in the world.”
Replied McGovern: “Wonderful commercial for Texas. We all should visit.”
As the debate progressed, Republicans managed to scare up more speakers. But they didn’t pretend that they were doing anything more than going through the motions. They were doing repeal once more, without feeling.
Opponents of the health-care law voiced the obligatory lines Tuesday calling the law a “train wreck” and all the rest. But the expansion of health coverage under the law, lower health-care inflation and the booming economy made it difficult to make the case that the law has been a disaster. The energy had flipped from the 2010 debates, and proponents of the law had the passion.
“They’re baaaaaaying at the moon, 56th time,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, baying herself.
During the election, GOP leaders downplayed Obamacare repeal as a priority, because they knew they’d have no chance of overcoming President Obama’s veto. But since then they decided to make a repeal vote one of their first orders of business, because freshmen legislators wanted to say that they, too, voted for repeal.
Omitted from the debate was any hint of what Republicans would do to replace Obamacare in the highly unlikely event that Obama agreed to sign legislation repealing his signature achievement. To finesse this, the repeal legislation included a bold provision calling for … a trio of committees to come up with recommendations. Similar promises during previous repeal efforts produced no such recommendations.
The Republicans’ ennui in the Obamacare debate continued a strange start for the new majority. In the House, the Republican leadership abandoned abortion and immigration legislation because of intra-party discord; in the Senate, the GOP majority struggled to pass legislation authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and, on Tuesday, failed to advance its proposal to challenge Obama’s immigration executive orders.
In contrast to the fire they breathed on Obamacare in 2010, this time the law’s foes wheezed banalities. “If you ask why we’re voting to repeal this law again, we’re doing it for the people,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy explained in a sing-song speech.
Democrats answered all this with derision. From the White House, Obama said: “I don’t know if it’s the 55th or the 60th time that they are taking this vote, but?… why is it this would be at the top of their agenda?”
Said McGovern: “Fifty-six: Let’s see, that’s two score and 16. It’s 4.5 dozen. But no matter how you add it up, it has to be some sort of world record in political futility.”
In the end, the House voted to repeal the law, sending the measure to the Senate, where Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had introduced a similar bill on Monday.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.