House tones down healthcare debate after shooting

WASHINGTON Tue Jan 18, 2011 6:54pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives, back to work after the attempted assassination of one of its members, on Tuesday staged a toned-down debate on a bill to repeal President Barack Obama's overhaul of the U.S. healthcare industry.

"In the wake of the recent tragedy in Tucson, we come together in a renewed commitment to civility," said Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.

House Republican Leader Eric Cantor agreed, saying, "We're going to be about a decency here and engage and promote active debate on policy."

With the American public split on Obama's landmark healthcare overhaul, House Republicans are on track to keep a 2010 campaign vow and pass the bill to repeal it on Wednesday.

But their measure is certain to die in the Senate, which narrowly remains in the hands of Obama's fellow Democrats in wake of last November's election.

House members spoke forcefully but respectfully about the reform, a major victory for Obama last year that is also one of the most divisive issues in the country.

Rhetoric seemed to be without much of the fire that marked political debate prior to the January 8 shooting in Tucson of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Six other people were killed in the attack that prompted calls for politicians to tone down their rhetoric.

For example, some Republicans on Tuesday no longer referred to the healthcare overhaul as "a job killer" as they had done previously. Instead, they used such phrases as "job stifling."

Republicans argue that federal mandates in the new law would undermine U.S. job growth.

Most Democrats, however, agree with Obama that the new law provides needed medical coverage for millions of Americans.

"I'm willing and eager to work with both Democrats and Republicans to improve the Affordable Care Act. But we can't go backward," Obama said in a statement.

The House had planned to consider the repeal bill last week. But it was abruptly pulled from consideration after the January 8 shooting spree in Arizona. The accused gunman is a troubled college dropout.

A motive has not been determined in the rampage. But many noted that Giffords and other Democrats who had backed Obama on healthcare were targeted for defeat in last year's election.

"STRONG FEELINGS"

While repeal is widely expected to fail, Republicans will try to starve funding for the healthcare reform and chip away at elements of it in Congress. [nN18137353] But it is under more threat from a series of legal challenges than congressional action.

The Obama administration appealed a ruling by a federal judge in Virginia that declared unconstitutional a key part of the healthcare law.

Speaking with reporters shortly before the House debate began, Cantor said, "Obviously there are strong feelings on both sides of the bill and we expect the debate to ensue along policy lines. There are going to be some policy differences."

Cantor added, "Republicans care about healthcare."

But he said, "We want to do it in a way that lowers health costs, that increases access and emphasizes the doctor-patient relationship -- none of which do we feel that the Obamacare bill does."

Democrat Representative Loretta Sanchez, speaking on the House floor, told of a single mother whose epileptic daughter would not have insurance without the new healthcare law.

Raising her voice, Sanchez said, "If this was your daughter, you would not repeal this healthcare reform!"

(Writing by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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