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Health Law Woes Spark Glee -- and Caution -- for GOP

Health Law Woes Spark Glee -- and Caution -- for GOP

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 12, 2013

Until recently, the years-long Republican drumbeat against implementing Obamacare had seemed both unending and pointless.

The GOP-led House famously voted four dozen times to repeal the law, including after the Supreme Court upheld it, President Obama was re-elected, and Democrats gained seats in both chambers of Congress. An effort last month to defund the law led to a government shutdown, the brink of default, and dismal grades for the GOP just one year from a midterm election that could shake up congressional power.

Now, six weeks after the law’s rollout has put the White House on defense for a malfunctioning enrollment website, increased premiums and canceled insurance plans, Republican lawmakers say that drumbeat doesn’t look so futile. Indeed, they have found new and timely favor with the public.

But those Obamacare troubles also have them stepping carefully as they straddle a line between glee over their political opportunity and sympathy over their constituents’ plight.

“Our ultimate goal is to repeal. We believe the bill is built on a faulty foundation and is destined to fail,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Senate GOP conference chairman, told RCP. “But we also want to spare Americans the pain and the harm that comes when it’s implemented -- much of what we’re seeing now on a daily basis.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the conference “is trying to find out what is the best way to constructively engage” the issue, given those competing interests. Arizona’s John McCain told RCP that a group of senators is working on “a package of things for us to be for. … It’s not enough for us to be beating up on Obamacare. We have to have a positive agenda and, hopefully, we will come up with it soon.”

With both chambers back in session this week, Republicans will reveal a glimpse of their recalibration by offering fixes to a law they have characterized as beyond repair. (As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month, “I don't think Albert Einstein could make this thing work.”)

On Friday, the House will vote on a measure sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton that would allow insurance companies to continue offering current (that is, non-Obamacare-compliant) health plans for a year. The proposal seizes upon Obama’s apology last week to Americans who are being rolled off their plans despite his repeated assurances that they would be able to keep them.

Republicans hope Friday’s vote will splinter Democrats, who had stayed remarkably united during the GOP’s defunding effort last month. “It’s saying to every Democrat, ‘Did you believe his promise? Or are you going to say that wasn’t the key promise?’” said David Winston, a pollster for the House GOP.

But Winston also said this week’s vote should serve as a predicate for alternative policy. “Ultimately what this has done is given Republicans a real opportunity to lay out their alternative, and the public is willing to listen,” he explained, noting that the president’s likability rating has taken a dip for the first time in his presidency. “The electorate is wanting to hear [the GOP’s] ideas on health care. … The challenge is clearly front and center.”

Complicating that challenge may be the GOP's tendency to get in its own way.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has subpoenaed U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to appear before the panel Wednesday to testify on the website’s failings. Administration officials have argued that doing so would divert Park from fixing the site and has asked for an alternative hearing date. (The White House has set Nov. 30 as its goal for having HealthCare.gov functioning properly.) Ranking committee member Elijah Cummings has demanded that Issa withdraw his subpoena, citing the chairman’s “unsubstantiated public attacks against [Park’s] integrity.”

Republicans are adding the president’s management difficulties to their list of complaints about his credibility and leadership on other issues. A recent Pew Research Center survey found just 37 percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling health care policy, and only 31 percent approve of the way he is handling the economy.  And the GOP is getting some unintended assistance from Democrats. Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Mark Begich of Alaska have cited a “crisis of confidence” in the administration regarding the website failures, enrollment signups and policy cancelations.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu who, like Begich, is a Democrat up for re-election in a red state next year, is offering a bill similar to Upton’s that would let consumers keep their current plans. “A promise was made and this legislation will ensure that this promise is kept. For many consumers, plans in the Marketplaces may offer superior coverage at a good value that saves them money. But people should be able to keep their plans if they want to,” she said in a statement announcing her bill. Fellow Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a co-sponsor.

Outside groups with an eye on 2014 are also getting involved. The conservative super PAC American Crossroads is running online ads tying Begich, Landrieu and Kay Hagan of North Carolina to the president’s repeated promise. “Obama lied. Landrieu lied. Your health care died,” says one spot. Americans for Prosperity has pledged to spend $2 million hitting Landrieu and Hagan for their support for the Affordable Care Act, the AP reported.

Landrieu’s bill is unlikely to make it to the Senate floor, however, nor is Upton’s -- even if it passes the House. Illinois’ Dick Durbin echoed the administration’s call for Democrats to be patient, asserting that once the website is running properly, concerns about canceled policies will be assuaged by plans available through the exchanges. “In a matter of weeks, I think we’re going to see a dramatic change. I think Republicans anticipate this, and their conversations are not as adamant about the website. Now they want to move to other things they think are problematic,” Durbin told RCP.

Meanwhile, Democrats are promoting the law’s most popular features, such as allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans and the guarantee of coverage for preexisting conditions. “Democratic candidates will be able to run on Obamacare as an advantage leading into the 2014 election,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz asserted Sunday on CNN.

“The White House, House and Senate Democrats have to just grind it out for the next couple of weeks, and once this [site] gets up and running, [Republicans] are going to be in the unique position of opposing access to health care for millions of Americans,” Jim Manley, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, told RCP.

Still, Republicans such as Sen. Mike Johanns say “the worst hasn’t yet hit.” The Nebraska lawmaker, who is retiring in 2015, said he expects more waves of individual policy cancelations -- and noted that another round will come next October, since the administration had delayed the insurance mandate for employers. “None of this should be a surprise,” he said. “Now it’s a crisis.” 

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

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