By Alexander Bolton - 04/02/14 06:00 AM EDT
Anxious Senate Republicans are worried party leaders are focusing too much this election year on ObamaCare and not enough on jobs and the economy.
The concern among GOP centrists comes as President Obama and congressional Democrats are crowing about a surge in late enrollments and claiming the political winds are shifting around the Affordable Care Act.
A growing rift in the GOP was exposed when a group of Senate Republicans recently struck a bipartisan deal to extend unemployment benefits. Neither Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) embraced the agreement.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who spearheaded efforts to find a compromise on jobless benefits, said, “It’s my opinion that the Affordable Care Act is going to play in this election, but I don’t think it’s the main issue. I think the main issue is going to be the economy and jobs.
“If we have solutions and answers on the economy and jobs, I think that the Affordable Care Act will take a back seat to it. If we think we’re going to win or lose the majority based on one single piece of legislation ... I think we’re mistaken.”
The error-plagued ObamaCare rollout and the president’s broken promise that people could keep their healthcare plans has helped put Republicans in a strong position to seize the Senate.
But some Republicans, including a senator who requested anonymity, fear the issue’s potency could fade following the March 31 enrollment deadline as news media move to other stories.
“It’s got to be a much broader appeal than one piece of legislation,” said Heller, who isn’t up for reelection in 2014.
Heller’s comments are strikingly similar to those from Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and other Democrats who say voters are not as focused on ObamaCare as Republicans believe.
Heller joined Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) to negotiate a five-month extension of unemployment benefits with Democrats.
While Republican leaders talk often about the slowness of the economic recovery, they frequently do so in the context of ObamaCare.
“The president’s healthcare plan has such broad-based impact, it’s hard to escape that as an overriding issue, whether it’s the impact it’s had on part-time work or the impact it’s had on people deciding not to hire back and fill positions,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
Many Republicans claim ObamaCare is a gift that keeps giving, saying experts predict premiums will skyrocket in coming months and years. House GOP lawmakers hope to unveil an Affordable Care Act replacement later this year.
After months of getting pummeled over the law’s botched implementation, Democrats say the tide is beginning to turn in their favor.
The White House on Tuesday touted the enrollment of more than 7 million people, a figure that seemed unattainable mere months ago. Republicans counter that millions lost their healthcare coverage last year because of ObamaCare mandates.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) played offense Tuesday on ObamaCare, a topic he usually avoids.
“We all know about the early setbacks with the rollout of ObamaCare, but here it is today; we have a number that no one thought we could arrive at a few months ago,” Reid said in introductory remarks at a press conference. “People are hungry for the benefits of this law.”
GOP strategists warn party leaders not to put all their eggs into the ObamaCare basket if they want to capture as many Democratic seats as possible in November.
“Republicans need to be very careful to sketch out a positive vision for the fall as part of their election strategy. If they’re viewed as too focused on ObamaCare and saying bad things about Obama-Care, it’s a very dour message and not likely to bring over swing voters,” said John Ullyot, a former Senate aide and GOP strategist.
Ullyot said swing voters want to see a positive agenda, adding, “It may be that ObamaCare is less of a negative six months from now than it is today.”
Collins, who is seeking reelection in a Democratic-leaning state, has sought compromise with Democrats on raising the minimum wage to a level below the $10.10 an hour sought by Obama.
In doing so, the senator has broken with McConnell, who has ruled out a boost to the minimum wage as a job killer.
Republican operatives say GOP leaders would be wise to shift some of their emphasis away from ObamaCare now that the enrollment deadline has passed.
Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate and House leadership aide, said, “The narrative will likely change somewhat toward the economy once again. ObamaCare will be front and center between now and the election, but the intensity will go down, leaving Republicans a chance to talk about what they would do differently with the economy.”
McConnell on Tuesday pivoted away from ObamaCare, urging Reid to allow votes on Republican amendments to spur job creation.
“While Senate Democrats dust off the same poll-tested ideas for papering over the symptoms of malaise, Republicans are proposing concrete ideas aimed at igniting the economy and giving people real hope for something more, something better than what they’ve been getting for the last five years, something that speaks to their hopes and potential,” McConnell said on the floor.
McConnell, who faces a primary and general election challenge, offered an amendment to the pending unemployment benefits package that would stop what he calls the administration’s “war on coal.”