In health care debate, can civility withstand reality?

WASHINGTON–Republicans declined to take the word “killing,” as in that job-killing health care law, out of the title of their repeal legislation. And one Florida Democrat on Tuesday accused the GOP of pushing “lock, stock, and barrel” to overturn the law.

A week after the Arizona shooting rampage that targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, some lawmakers tiptoed gingerly back to the politically-charged, emotionally-fraught debate over health care reform on Tuesday. But others, like Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, dove into Washington’s roiling political waters with full force.

Health care, in particular, presents a tough test for the promise of greater civility in the nation’s political discourse. It’s historically one of the most contentious issues, involving highly emotional issues touching people’s economic and physical well-being.

“It’s a combination of a core initiative of President Obama’s with something that is deeply personal to every American,” noted Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. He added that Wall Street reform, which featured a pitched fight over derivatives regulation, could never have triggered as much anxiety for the average voter.

With a final vote on the GOP’s repeal legislation set for today, this is just the beginning of a two-year effort to unravel the health care law. But it’s also the first opportunity to see whether lawmakers in Washington are serious about changing the parameters of political debate.

Connecticut lawmakers offered different interpretations of the causes and solutions for the today’s sour tone in Congress. But they agreed that some change was needed.

“There has been so much vitriol against government and political leaders–we need to step back from these destructive politics,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said in an email response to questions from the Mirror. “Toning down the rhetoric is critical in all aspects of our political culture, not just on the health care law.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said that last week’s political hiatus, in which the health care vote was delayed to honor and pray for Giffords and others attacked in the shooting, was very “genuine”

“I don’t think people were just going through the motions,” he said. “It felt real. But it’s a challenge to see whether a lot of the forces that are pulling the two sides apart can be overcome.”

During the previous week, when a House committee began a nearly 13-hour marathon session to set the terms of debate for the Republican repeal bill, it wasn’t so nice.

“The Rules Committee was pretty tough,” Courtney said.

He was among the Democrats testifying in favor of amendments to the GOP bill. He offered a provision that would preserve the health care law’s tax breaks for small businesses and a program to help businesses cope with the cost of health care for early retirees. Republicans denied him and others the chance to offer their amendments.

“Just showing some flicker of recognition for parts of the bill that obviously are successful would have shown real good faith and so far this thing is just all about ramming through” the Republican repeal measure, he said. “That feels like politics, not honest debate.”

Of course, Republicans said the same thing when the health care overhaul first moved though the last Congress, when both chambers were controlled by Democrats. They complained the bill was being jammed through without enough debate or opportunity for Republican input.

And on Tuesday, Republicans accused Senate Democrats  of planning to block their repeal legislation for political purposes, thwarting the legislative process.

“If Harry Reid is so confident that the members of that body are where he is, then let’s see them vote in that body,” said the new House Majority Leader, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, said in a dare to the Senate Democratic leader.

Himes said the vitriolic language and political bluster doesn’t bother him as much as distortions.

“Incivility is unfortunate but what really disturbs me about the health care debate is the inaccuracies, starting with the death panels,” he said, referring to false assertions by GOP critics that the health care overhaul would somehow allow the government to “pull the plug on grandma.”

Those kinds of “lies,” he said, “really erode the ability of people to make choices in an informed way.” And that’s more damaging that nasty political rhetoric, he said.

Nevertheless, examples of base political accusations abound, especially when it comes to the health care law. There was ex-Rep. Alan Grayson’s comment, during the initial 2009 House debate, that Republicans want Americans to “die quickly.” And Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst during the president’s 2009 health care speech.

How did politics sink so low? And how can this Congress start in a better direction?

Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-5th District, said politicians are playing to the press. And if the 24/7 news cycle stopped rewarding outlandish talk, that would be a good start.

“The unfortunate fact is that people say inciteful and crazy things because the media pays attention to them when they say it… Today you land on the major talk shows because you say crazy things–on the left or the right,” Murphy said. “So ultimately the media will help decide whether that kind of extremist speech gets rewarded. There are a lot of changes that could be made to the way we conduct political debate as a result of this [Arizona] incident, but hopefully one of them is that more moderate voices get accentuated and highlighted in political forums.”

Courtney said one major part of the problem is that the current political system offers very few opportunities to mix with lawmakers from across the political aisle. Like many newer House members, Courtney did not move his family to Washington when he got elected.

He commutes to his home district, often flying in to D.C. on Tuesdays and leaving on Thursdays, a stretch that allows him to cast votes and attend committee hearings and caucus meetings and not much else.

In previous decades, lawmakers transplanted their lives to Washington, allowing for more social interactions across party lines over the weekends.

“We’re not going to turn the clock back to where people bring their families here,” Courtney said, noting that such a move for him would have disrupted his wife’s nursing career and his daughter’s high school life.

It’s also become politically treacherous to be seen as too at home in Washington-and therefore too removed from one’s constituents.

But there’s a political cost to that, Courtney said. “The opportunities to interact [with Republicans] on a personal level are very limited,” he said. “There’s no mingling.”

Looking over his last four years in Washington, the only time he’s really gotten to spend extended time with Republicans is on congressional trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said one good step would be to create new opportunities for cross-party kibitzing.

Himes agreed there isn’t much time to make GOP friends. Asked when he’s had the greatest chance to get to know some of his Republican colleagues, he cited his freshman orientation two years ago, when, he said, he struck up a rapport with Rep.  Leonard Lance, R-N.J. But he said that’s not the real problem.

“What’s really happened is over the years is more and more districts have been gerrymandered to be safe seats,” he said. “If you’re in a safe seat, all you care about is primary voters, who tend to be extreme.”

Himes said more districts like his, an up-for-grabs swath in southwestern Connecticut, would be better for the nation’s political debate.

“It would result in more moderation and more members of Congress who reflect the fundamentally moderate nature of most Americans,” he said. “Sharing steaks on the weekend would be pleasant, but I think it’s tangential.”

Similarly, Himes said he didn’t think the proposal to have Democrats and Republicans sit next to each other, instead of in divided camps, at next week’s State of the Union address would do much to improve civility.

“It can’t hurt and on the margin maybe it helps,” he said. “But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s going to move needle.”

On that count, Courtney agreed. “It’s mostly symbolic. But really any opportunity to break down some of these patterns is a good thing.”

So who will he sit next to? Courtney said he’d talked about it with Rep. Robert Wittman of Virginia, one of the GOP friends he made on a congressional trip overseas.  “People are starting find buddies like daycare,” Courtney quipped.