After the Train Wreck
What will Republicans offer to replace Obamacare?
November 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11
Congressional Republicans have Obamacare right where they want it. The idea of a one-year delay of the law, always far-fetched as long as the Democrats controlled the Senate, is suddenly looking plausible.
“I think there needs to be a one-year suspension of the entire law, at least, if not a longer suspension,” says Georgia Republican Tom Price. “The Senate Democrats and the president are the ones that have to decide it needs to be done.”
When asked about a delay, House Republican whip Kevin McCarthy chuckles but doesn’t answer. Instead, he suggests that the law’s destructiveness could upend the entire health care system. It’s not just the faulty health insurance exchange website and a slew of insurance policies canceled in light of Obamacare’s regulations. Starting in January, Americans will almost certainly be looking at higher out-of-pocket costs for doctor’s visits and procedures. The disruptions in the individual market will soon be felt in the small-business health insurance market. Folks may be showing up at their doctor’s office only to find their provider network has changed.
“You’re going to see a great deal of frustration, and each wave getting stronger,” McCarthy says, adding, “How far will Democrats finally go in their minds to say, ‘Hey, we should repeal this whole thing’?”
The sense among Republicans in the House is that as public outrage grows and the full brunt of the law is felt, Democrats will have no choice but to defect.
“Our friends on the other side of the aisle are beginning to feel the heat, and the heat is only going to get hotter because of the disastrous consequences of this law for real people,” says Price.
“I think in time you’ll see a flood of Democrats, including many who voted for the law, trying to find a way out, because they’re going to be held accountable for this,” says Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
It’s incredible to hear Republicans speak so confidently. In early October, with the government shut down over an ill-fated effort to “defund” the health care law, Republicans were supposedly in deep trouble. A Quinnipiac poll conducted on the eve of the shutdown and the opening of the Obamacare exchange gave the Democrats a nine-point lead on the generic congressional ballot, the party’s widest margin in the 2014 cycle.
But that was then. Quinnipiac’s new national poll, released November 13, showed the Democrats’ lead on the generic ballot had evaporated. Republicans were now polling even with Democrats, and what seemed impossible a month before—getting Democrats in Congress to turn against Obamacare—was becoming a real possibility.
That’s because the first six weeks of the law’s implementation have seen one disaster after another. The federal health insurance exchange website hasn’t worked properly from the beginning. So far, just over 106,000 people, a fraction of the 500,000 predicted by the Obama administration in the first month, have signed up for new insurance policies through the federal site and the state exchanges. In the meantime, millions of Americans have been informed that their health insurance plans have been canceled or their premiums will be going up. Amid the uproar over the broken promise President Obama and Democrats made countless times during the debate over Obamacare that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” congressional Democrats began jumping ship.
It’s all according to the Republicans’ plan, if you believe John Boehner. On November 13, the House speaker met with the GOP conference to remind them of the leadership’s strategy on the health care law.
“Remember the strategy for stopping Obamacare we laid out to you back in July,” said Boehner. “It had two components: aggressive, coordinated oversight and targeted legislative strikes aimed at shattering the legislative coalition the president has used to force his law on the nation. That plan is being executed as we speak.”
A series of House hearings with administration officials made the promises to fix the website harder to believe. On the legislative side, a bill authored by Michigan Republican congressman Fred Upton that would grandfather in plans sold in 2013 was gaining Democratic support, while Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 were introducing similar legislation. Bill Clinton endorsed the idea in an interview released on November 12.
“Even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Clinton said.
The White House responded accordingly, announcing on November 14, one day before the House was set to vote on the Upton bill, that it would offer its own “fix” to the problem. Insurers will now be encouraged to let policyholders in the individual market renew their 2013 policies for next year, even though those old policies would otherwise be illegal under Obamacare. The action, justified under the administration’s “enforcement discretion,” was designed to spare the White House an embarrassing vote in Congress.
The pro-Obamacare coalition hadn’t quite shattered, but it was beginning to crumble. Democratic senator Max Baucus’s prediction that the implementation of Obamacare would prove to be a train wreck turned out to be truer than he or anyone else could have guessed.
The remaining question for Republicans in Congress is how they’ll clean up the wreckage. So far, the focus of the House leadership remains on those “targeted strikes” designed to put Democrats in a tough position heading into the 2014 elections. Less emphasis is placed on presenting to the country a Republican alternative to Obamacare. Price and Scalise both have their own conservative health care reform proposals, but the House leadership remains vague on a Republican vision for health care.
“We’ve been trying to coordinate, understand the challenges,” says McCarthy. “I think from our key plans, from our principles, we can work toward that and show the American public what we’re for.”
The American public may be asking Republicans what they’re for sooner than anyone expected.