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Search and destroy

WASHINGTON — Watching House Republicans’ latest complaint about Obamacare brings to mind the joke Woody Allen used to open “Annie Hall,” about two elderly women at a Catskills resort.

“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” says one.

“Yeah, I know,” says the other. “And such small portions.”

Last week, the administration announced it was delaying by a year the implementation of one of Obamacare’s provisions, the requirement that large employers provide health insurance. You’d think the opposition party, which has spent four years denouncing the health care reforms, would be delighted by the reprieve. But on Wednesday, Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing to condemn the administration — for incomplete enforcement of the law they hate.

“This committee intends to get an explanation,” proclaimed Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing. “This committee has serious questions about how and why this alarming decision was made and the effect that delaying this key provision will have on other provisions of the law.”

It was kind of the chairman to show such thoughtful concern for a law he wants repealed. And if Brady saw the delay as “alarming,” others were apoplectic. “Boy, I’ll tell you,” Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said, beginning his remarks. “I hate to see a dictatorship come into this country, but it sure looks like that’s what’s happening with health care.”

“We see this as definitely something that leans toward socialism,” proclaimed Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

President Obama was called a dictator and a socialist for passing Obamacare. Now he’s a dictator and a socialist for postponing it? “The irony of objecting to the delay of a program you’ve been trying to stop is no doubt lost on this room,” observed Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

It’s a safe bet that Republicans aren’t really concerned about the delay, which the administration said last week that it had granted at the request of employers and which was applauded by business groups. Rather, Republicans used the delay as a chance to make the case, yet again, that the entire health care law should be ditched. They are planning to vote soon on repealing the law — for the 38th time, give or take.

“This law is literally just unraveling before our eyes,” judged Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the former vice-presidential candidate. “I don’t know how you can conclude that this is not a total fiasco.” In an extended cobbler’s metaphor, he said Democrats wrote the law “on Christmas Eve and shoehorned that into law, which is what we have today, and so we see all these shoes dropping.”

Chairman Brady revealed his motives when he used his opening statement to cite polling on the law’s unpopularity. “Clearly, the rollout of Obamacare is in disarray,” he exulted.

This unqualified opposition is counterproductive for House Republicans. On health care, as on immigration, their approach amounts to a search-and-destroy mission. They could work with Democrats to remove problematic pieces in the health care law, and they could compromise with Democrats on legislation that would secure the borders. But instead they are devoted to shutting down both.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., made the point when he asked the four witnesses called by the Republicans whether Obamacare should be fixed or repealed. The replies:

“Repealing and replacing.”

“Repealing and replacing.”

“Repeal and replace.”

“Repeal it.”

“The major obstacle that the Affordable Care Act faces today is there’s so much opposition for political reasons alone to see that this thing fail, and not whether this is going to help small businesses or help Americans throughout the country,” Kind said. “And that’s the real tragedy with these type of hearings.”

Replied Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill, “Do we want to repeal this? You bet your life. Caught red-handed.” Roskam rejected the idea “that somehow a desire to see something fail is somehow unjust.”

But Republicans don’t have much of a viable alternative. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor touted a bill this spring to help people with pre-existing health problems get insurance, but conservative opposition forced him to. In the case of the “employer mandate,” even a number of liberals agree that it’s a bad policy. Republicans could probably find support for repealing that provision, if they weren’t hell-bent on repealing the whole law.

But it’s so much more cathartic to call a hearing, assume a posture of umbrage, and use words such as “calamity” and “fiscal time bomb,” and “socialism” and “dictatorship.”

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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