GOP found political gold in Obamacare
By: Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
November 13, 2013 07:22 PM EST
House Republicans have a rich history of going too far — most of the time way too far.
Budget fights turn into referendums on abortion. Health care debates swerve into discussions about rape. The struggle over immigration reform had some in the GOP pushing to kick people out of America.
But as the Obamacare rollout gets worse with each passing day, Speaker John Boehner and his House GOP colleagues are being handed political gold — and they think they’ve figured out a way to avoid screwing it up.
(Understanding Obamacare: POLITICO’s guide to the ACA)
The Obamacare playbook, as described by several high-level House GOP aides and lawmakers, includes lots of committee oversight, some targeted legislation and lots of rhetoric. But there will be no more votes to defund or repeal Obamacare — the issue that led to the disastrous 16-day government shutdown — the GOP leadership says. At some point, top Republicans say, there might be a vote to delay the law for a year.
They will pass Obamacare-related bills when opportunities arise — like this week — but Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) neatly encapsulated the party’s emerging strategy: “We should be just like a doctor and do no harm.”
“Obamacare is the gift that keeps on giving,” a senior House aide said on condition of anonymity. “We just need to keep out of the way.”
It’s not going to be easy. This is the same group that threatened its majority status last month by bumbling into the shutdown. Over the past year, the House GOP also temporarily blocked aid for the hurricane-stricken East Coast, held up the Violence Against Women Act and nearly caused an economic meltdown by flirting with an unprecedented default on U.S. debt.
(PHOTOS: 10 Sebelius quotes about Obamacare website)
But the plan, for the moment, is working beautifully. Defeated, dejected and dispirited just a month ago following the end of the shutdown, House Republicans are now pivoting off millions of Americans losing their health insurance plans by scheduling a vote on Michigan Rep. Fred Upton’s Keep Your Health Plan Act later this week.
The bill would allow people to keep their canceled health insurance plan for the next year. Unless the White House comes up with a better way to keep millions of Americans from losing their plans, senior House Democratic aides expect a large number of their members to cross the aisle and vote for the Upton package. A senior House Democratic staffer estimated between 20 and 100 Democrats — depending on the circumstances — could vote with the GOP to pass the bill, which would be a huge political blow to President Barack Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who helped pass Obamacare in 2010.
A closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Wednesday was ugly as members vented about the Affordable Care Act debacle, lawmakers and aides said, as was a similar gathering of California Democrats — among the most liberal House bunch. House Democrats will meet again on Thursday to discuss Obamacare’s implementation, and the mood isn’t likely to be any better.
(PHOTOS: Senate’s Obamacare hearing)
The Republicans’ stunningly good political fortunes — practically none of their making — don’t end there.
Without much consequence, Boehner has avoided any legislation on gun control. He is ignoring the Senate’s bill to curb workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees. The political fallout from the shutdown has all but disappeared, for the time being. The U.S. economy, which could have seen major damage from the shutdown, appears solid — the Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 averages closed at record highs Wednesday.
Pro-immigration reform groups have spent millions of dollars trying to force Boehner to take up their cause, yet with just a dozen legislative days left before the end of 2013, the House hasn’t passed a single element. House Republican leadership has no plans to do that, and Boehner on Wednesday affirmatively ruled out a formal negotiation with the Senate.
In a closed-door political briefing Wednesday morning, party leaders highlighted the downswing in Obama’s approval, trust and honesty ratings. The message: Keep the focus on Obama and off House Republicans.
“Let the president speak for himself,” Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said, describing the ideal GOP strategy. “That’s all we have to do. We don’t need to get ahead of this; we don’t need to get in the way of this. We need to facilitate the president’s promise. If the president won’t uphold the biggest promise of his administration, we’ll help him uphold it. If the president and Democrats think they can go back on that promise, shame on them. We need to be in a position to help the president keep his word.”
That’s the pervasive message from House Republicans.
“We need to just let [Obamacare] continue to unfold; let the American people see what this is all about,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close Boehner ally. “People are starting to figure out, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t keep my doctor; I can’t keep the health insurance I have; it’s going to cost more.’”
Of course, it’s early in the overhaul’s life span, and the political fortunes of both Democrats and the GOP can change rapidly. The Obamacare website could be repaired, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to begin signing up. Obama can come up with some tweak that solves all of these issues. And Republicans can end up on the losing side again in January, when they have to vote to keep the government open, or in the spring, when they need to raise the debt ceiling.
For now, the furor and infighting among Democrats is the unmistakable narrative on Capitol Hill.
For instance, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), a progressive 18-year veteran of Congress, said the White House better snap into action and fix the law soon, or he’ll vote with Republicans on Friday. But California Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the authors of the health care law, told POLITICO his Democratic colleagues should be wary of voting for a Republican bill as they search for political cover from any Obamacare-related backlash.
“If anyone is going to vote for that to avoid political consequences now, they’re going to face by October of next year very high insurance rates for everybody in the pool, not just those who had insurance,” Waxman said. “If people think they’re going to get rid of a political problem, they’re not. It’s going to be worse.”
Waxman added: “Republicans seem to have a pattern of overplaying their hands. We’ll see what they do on a number of issues as we go through the next few months.”
Still, there’s an obvious recognition that Republicans have time to mess this up.
“The health care rollout has gone far worse than anyone ever imagined. The question is where does this take us? Boy, I don’t know,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans. “Right now, as Republicans, we have to be careful how we handle this issue. We should look at some targeted fixes to the law. Medical device tax, move the 30-hour work requirement to 40 hours. We need to be careful we don’t overplay. We have a track record on that subject.”