At 10:16 p.m. on Aug. 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ehman culled through data collected by the super-powered "Big Ear" radio telescope in Delaware, Ohio.
And there it was.
Staring back at Ehman was something SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) investigators had never found before or since. The data transcript collected by the Big Ear revealed an astonishingly strong, non-terrestrial signal which didn't even originate in our solar system. The anomaly lasted for 72 seconds. Experts believe it emanated from the constellation Sagittarius. Scientists contend the event observed by Ehman is the best candidate for a non-organic, extraterrestrial signal ever documented on Earth.
A computer chronicling the episode spat out a vertical, alphanumerical series onto a dot matrix printer: 6EQUJ5.
Ehman quickly circled the sequence and scribbled but a single word: "Wow!"
The aberration became known as the "Wow! Signal." Scientists have struggled to replicate Ehman's finding or locate a similar beacon there or anywhere in the cosmos. All efforts ended in failure. Ehman's episode stands alone.
And the search continues.
When it comes to ObamaCare, congressional Republicans find themselves in a similar bind. They're like scientists trying to locate the Wow! Signal. For six years now, congressional Republicans have made an effort to take out the health care law. Better yet, lay low the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replace it with something else. Remember the GOP's old "repeal and replace" mantra from the Pledge to America, circa 2010?
But there are two problems: Republicans have yet to come anywhere close to repealing the health care law. More importantly, they have yet to craft any legislation which would replace ObamaCare.
Congressional Republicans are a lot like scientists. If they could, they'd staff the Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico or take shifts at the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Six years since a Democrat-led Congress first toiled on ObamaCare and five years since the president signed the bill into law, Republicans still scour the frequencies for the health care equivalent of the Wow! Signal. A legislative transmission from above that would fundamentally tilt the ACA.
However, even Jerry Ehman detected the "Wow! Signal" once. ObamaCare opponents just keep coming up empty.
Something big has to happen soon for Republicans. ObamaCare is the law of the land. And if a "Wow!" transmission is out there, it could come from an intergalactic source as mysterious as that perceived extraterrestrial source in Sagittarius: the U.S. Supreme Court. In just a few weeks, the high court will render its decision in King v. Burwell, a case evaluating the qualification of subsidies for the health care law. The Supreme Court could impale the ACA, ruling subsidies unconstitutional for some ObamaCare beneficiaries. Such an outcome could be catastrophic for the law. It also means that Republicans -- having talked a good game for years with little to show for it -- had better turn up their dials to capture that "Wow!" broadcast. The onus is on them.
A working group of key House members has prepped for Supreme Court scenarios for months. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are the players here. They want to give states the chance to sidestep mandates which compel people to purchase insurance and void requirements that companies provide care for their employees. The trio also wants states to have the option to back away from ObamaCare.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., is also crafting a package of tax incentives and tax credits which consumers could use to buy health coverage.
It's anybody's guess, though, if these members will get the traction necessary to move a bill on the floor. Then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., spearheaded a working group a few years ago to find an ObamaCare replacement plan. No accord ever materialized. The reason Republicans never put an ObamaCare replacement bill on the floor is because the GOP rank-and-file never coalesced around a plan which could pass.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., faces a potentially tough re-election in a swing state next year. Mindful of the policy calamity which could upend Capitol Hill after the Supreme Court ruling, the Wisconsin Republican authored a bill to maintain the subsidies for health care -- but only for a few more years. In exchange, the Obama administration would have to end the individual and employer mandates for insurance.
But past is prologue here. It's anyone's guess if Johnson's idea could vault two parliamentary hurdles and secure supermajorities just to get the bill on the floor and stave off a filibuster. And no one knows what the appetite is for such legislation in the House. Republicans aren't going to get help from Democrats. It's unlikely that staunch conservatives would vote for anything short of a full, unvarnished repeal.
Hence, the continual sky sweep by the legislative stargazers, searching for the "Wow! Signal."
Health care is front and center Thursday in Washington. Last summer, the House of Representatives voted to sue the Obama administration over taking "unilateral actions" in administering the ACA. The GOP-led House charged that President Obama couldn't arbitrarily tweak and adjust deadlines and provisos in the law without the consent of Congress. Those allegations go before a federal court Thursday.
The House alleges that the administration waived the employer mandate when it shouldn't have. Ironically, most conservatives want to dump the employer mandate. But they didn't like it when the administration altered the terms of that mandate without congressional action. Moreover, the House says the law spends money which Congress never allocated toward implementing the law. The House contends that subverts the Constitution.
"Time and again, the president has chosen to rewrite the law whenever it suits him," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement. "No president is above accountability to the Constitution and the rule of law."
The House's lawsuit certainly does a lot for the GOP base and energizes Republican members -- eager to demonstrate that Obama extends his reach beyond constitutional parameters. That may be so. This exercise extends the conversation about ObamaCare. But it doesn't cut to the root of the problem facing Republicans when it comes to unraveling the law. This is a separate track which still doesn't dial in the "Wow! Signal."
A definitive plan that can react to King v. Burwell (presuming the case goes the way GOPers want it to go) remains elusive. But until that happens, congressional Republicans sweep the legislative frequencies, searching for that interstellar health care solution.
If and when they finally get it, they can mimic the penmanship of Jerry Ehman and his finding on a hot summer night in 1977. "Wow!," they can write, having discovered a legislative path no one detected before on health care.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.