Another week in Congress, another vote to change or stop Obamacare.
While these Republican-backed measures — now up to more than 50 — are opportunities for Republicans to keep up their drumbeat against a law they believe has detrimental effects, they also have another curious outcome: They can help vulnerable Democrats facing tough reelection battles.
Take Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat representing a swing district in Florida. He is against a full repeal of Obamacare. But the wave of House votes in recent months from Republicans to alter the health care law, such as delaying the tax penalty for not purchasing insurance, have given Garcia the opportunity to provide a more nuanced voting record when it comes to the Affordable Care Act than simply supporting it.
Are those opportunities helpful? “Thank you, Speaker Boehner,” Garcia says.
“The people in South Florida are signing up, taking advantage, and using the best parts of this plan. I voted on things like not requiring it to be a mandate, because if it’s not required for Walmart, it shouldn’t be required for Walter — that is what my vote has been,” Garcia says. “If I can make it better, cheaper, faster, this is what I want to do. And every time they give me a chance to distinguish my position, I will take that, because in the end I didn’t come here to hurt my constituents, I came to help my community.”
He is part of a group of roughly 20 to 35 House Democrats who have broken ranks and joined with Republicans to favor altering the law. And Garcia’s votes have become campaign fodder in his defense. Take this House Majority PAC ad, which touts his votes on GOP plans. “Joe Garcia is working to fix Obamacare. He voted to let you keep your existing health plan,” the narrator states.
Now, House Republicans repeatedly putting up Obamacare measures for votes keeps the conversation on the Hill from straying too far from Obama, which may be politically unhelpful for vulnerable Democrats. And Republicans have pointed to the number of Democrats casting such votes as evidence that they, too, find Obamacare highly problematic.
The most vulnerable Democrats have tended to side with the GOP on such measures. In November, 39 Democrats voted with Republicans on the “Keep Your Healthcare Plan” bill, including eight of the nine Democrats who represent districts where Obama lost in 2012.
Many other Democrats don’t begrudge their colleagues such votes. And there isn’t much reason to. They are the minority, and these House-passed bills stand no chance in the Senate anyway.
“Democrats, they vote their districts. I think that’s part of what we do here,” says Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of House Democratic leadership. “But I thin, at the same time, an overwhelming number of Democrats know how important this issue is for America and are being steadfast here.”
Progressive Caucus Cochairman Keith Ellison says he doesn’t “blame” his colleagues for taking those votes. “I think in this environment the most important thing for us to do is maintain seats.”
And these members defend the votes they take. Democratic Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona has voted numerous times to delay the penalty under the individual mandate. “I’m going to continue to fight to make the changes that are necessary,” he says.
Allowing himself to cast votes that show he is an independent thinker is “absolutely” helpful, Barber says, and he points to his National Journal vote rating, showing he is the 238th most conservative and 194th most liberal member of the House — smack in the middle.
“I’m proud of that. I didn’t deliberately go out to have a score, but I looked at the bill, and it’s a good bill for my community, regardless of party,” Barber says. “We ought to be able to have votes to show who we are, because I’m willing to stand on that record.”
It’s unclear whether these votes will be enough to fend off Republican attacks. Even some Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act when it first passed still lost their seats in Congress.
And even if he’s voting with Republicans, Garcia isn’t an advocate of their strategy to put up dozens of votes on bills that won’t go anywhere. “I don’t particularly think that the Republicans are having a serious debate on Obamacare,” Garcia said. “What they’re trying to do is position, and they give me an opportunity to take positions. But this is nonsense.”