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Post-repeal tactics

Politics | New House members keep pledge to voters and vow to fight anew federal healthcare

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

Randy Hultgren's office is mostly bare. Two Bibles stacked on his desk and a couple of photos with his wife sitting on a nearby table represent the only personal touches.

But that's perhaps not surprising since he officially became a U.S. congressman a few weeks ago. Still, the tall, broad-shouldered Republican from Illinois has made sure that one giant from his state remains well represented in Washington: His modest private office holds three paintings, one statue, and one bust of Abraham Lincoln.

It's no surprise, either, that Hultgren, 44, like Lincoln believes in democracy as a "government of the people, by the people, for the people," and so begins his day by placing calls to constituents in his district.

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Next he will deliver his first speech on the House floor. By day's end, he will cast perhaps one of the biggest votes of his two-year term-fulfilling a pledge he made on countless campaign stops last year-to repeal Obamacare.

Laid-back and friendly, Hultgren asks his constituents in a conference call for examples he can use in his afternoon speech. The small business owners on the phone don't hide their frustrations. They tell Hultgren that the uncertainty surrounding Obamacare's future regulations paralyzes their ability to expand their businesses. No one wants to hire more workers, they say, and going over the law's $250,000 payroll cap would subject them to stiff penalties if they don't offer a government-approved healthcare plan.

"I need people with four arms and legs because the cost of doing business keeps going up and up and up," says Jeff Kubas of St. Charles, Ill.

As Hultgren walks to the U.S. Capitol to make his speech, he scoffs at criticism that the Jan. 19 House vote to repeal healthcare is symbolic and meaningless: "For the last couple of years, Congress hasn't been listening to people," he told me. "This is what the people wanted, and if we don't have this vote this would be one more time when we didn't listen."

It was a crowded House floor on Jan. 19 as most of the 87 new Republican House members queued up, many addressing their constituents from the House chamber for the first time. They each gave versions of the same speech: acknowledging their constituents' fears over Obamacare's impending bureaucracy and promising to do what their voters sent them to Washington to do.

Not surprisingly, the measure to repeal the healthcare overhaul passed only last March won on a party-line vote of 245-189. Every Republican and three Democrats voted to repeal.

And two weeks into the 112th Congress, the repeal effort likely hit its zenith. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., won't allow it to reach the Senate. Even if moderate Senate Democrats somehow persuade Reid to reconsider, repeal won't make it past President Barack Obama's veto pen.

So why did House Republican leaders make it their first major vote of the new Congress? They are banking on the belief that keeping the healthcare political potato hot will fire up voters in 2012 the same way it did in 2010. Freshman lawmaker Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., called repeal the "first step in untying the Gordian knot" of big government policies pushed by Democrats in the last Congress. "We are not under any illusions that Obama will spin a 180 on this and suddenly see the light," he said. "But we can stake out our territory as a legislative body."

The day after the repeal vote, House leaders instructed the new GOP committee chairmen to begin drafting alternatives to Obamacare. With no deadline, conservatives will be able to wage a two-year war to keep Obamacare supporters on the defensive. They plan to use:

Committee hearings. A parade of oversight investigations will force administration officials to face public questions about the law's most controversial aspects-like why they have granted waivers on onerous requirements to more than 220 companies and labor unions; why the law uses 10 years of taxes to pay for six years of implementation; and how the law's massive expansion of Medicaid will burden cash-strapped states.

Defunding. Republicans have vowed to starve Obamacare out of money: Discretionary spending in the law (those elements that must be approved by Congress) amounts to about $115 billion of the law's $1 trillion total cost over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And opponents will zero in canceling funding for the IRS and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They need up to $10 billion over the next decade to implement the law.

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