GOP Senate Candidates See Opportunity on Health Care

GOP Senate Candidates See Opportunity on Health Care

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 3, 2012

The Romney campaign, in the person of senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, described the health care law's individual mandate Monday as a penalty instead of a tax, a surprising admission at odds with Republicans angling for control of the Senate in November. They view the "tax" definition as a winning argument in their races across the country.

The Supreme Court last week upheld the constitutionality of the law’s requirement that everyone carry health insurance or else be subject to a fine -- which, per Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion, should be considered a tax. That decision handed the GOP a way to hold Democrats accountable for supporting what could be construed as a tax hike, thus dampening their pro-middle-class messaging.

That strategy was on display this past weekend, when the conservative group Crossroads GPS revised and re-launched an ad hitting U.S. Senate hopeful Heidi Heitkamp -- a North Dakota Democrat seeking the seat of the retiring Kent Conrad -- but this time focusing on the revenue increases. The spot is simply titled “Tax.”

The court’s decision “is going to be a boon for Republican Senate campaigns, which are . . . going to continue to put Democrats on the defensive,” said one Republican strategist. “. . . In Senate races across the country, this will be referendum on this job-killing, tax-increasing health care measure, and every Democrat is going to have to explain why they voted for a tax.”

Last month, Heitkamp released an ad embracing the health care law -- an unusual step for a Democrat running in a red state. But as a breast cancer survivor, she highlighted the law’s coverage for pre-existing conditions, and attacked her opponent, Rep. Rick Berg, for voting against a law that would “deny coverage for kids.” In the spot, she noted that there is “good and bad in the health care law and it needs to be fixed,” and she outlined those fixes after the court’s decision Thursday. Notable among them: She supports a repeal of the individual mandate.

Obama’s top political adviser, David Plouffe, on Friday advised Democrats to push back against the Republicans’ tax-hike message. In a memo, he outlined talking points for selling the law as middle class-friendly. Plouffe noted that Romney’s Massachusetts’ health care reform also included a “penalty” for failing to comply with the health insurance requirement. But while the Supreme Court likened Obamacare’s penalty to a tax, Plouffe and one of his Republican counterparts did not.

In a television interview Monday, Fehrnstrom said the presumptive GOP nominee “agreed with the dissent that was written by Justice Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.” Regarding the Bay State law, Fehrnstrom added: "The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax."

But the word “tax” is a hot-button word for Republicans in congressional races for two reasons. First, it provides a fresh slap at their Democratic opponents even though 2 ½ years have passed since the health care votes were cast. (Democrats insist that such reminders won’t do much to sway voters. “It’s impossible for me to believe that that issue isn’t fully baked into the electorate,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with Senate campaigns. “It’s difficult to see how that is going to push voters over the edge at this point.”)

But perhaps more significant, framing the mandate as a tax also gives Senate Republicans a re-invigorated shot at repeal. In an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that the Senate would use the budget reconciliation method, which requires just 51 votes instead of the usual 60, to move forward on repeal. “Reconciliation is available because the Supreme Court has now declared it a tax,” McConnell said, referring to the voting procedure intended to ease the passage of budget and tax deals. “They have unearthed the massive deception that was practiced by the president and the Democrats to constantly deny that it was a tax. . . . And as a tax, it is eligible for reconciliation.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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