Republican concerns about political overreach crept into the debate over the IRS scandal in June, dredging up uncomfortable memories of the late 1990s, when President Clinton was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
Worry about overreach is so ingrained in some quarters of the GOP that it prompted one former senior GOP aide to caution: "Never underestimate our ability to shoot ourselves."
But with the shutdown and its political woes behind them, Republicans are altogether rejecting the notion of overreaching on Obamacare, feeling confident that the law's troubled rollout and unreliable website, and an expected hike in premiums, will bolster their chances of retaking the Senate in 2014.
"The best thing you can do is highlight the problematic and politically vulnerable parts of the bill," said David Kensinger, who was a top aide to former GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. "I'm not convinced we can be talking about this too much."
Republicans are grounding their confidence in the expectation that as the law continues to be implemented, negative headlines will continue. They point to the White House decision to extend the enrollment period past the midterm elections as evidence that Democrats are concerned.
Already Senate Republicans have begun jabbing at the law by introducing legislation aimed at highlighting what they view as politically hypocritical—and therefore politically fertile—parts of the Affordable Care Act.
Last week, for instance, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota and GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced legislation to block the administration from exempting labor unions from a reinsurance tax included in the law.
Democrats, of course, have been eager to point out the dozens of times House Republicans have tried repealing the law, and the efforts last month by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to defund the law fueled Democratic attacks that Republicans were ham-handed obstructionists.
But, since the health law's rollout, a contrast is emerging, at least between Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans. While the Senate GOP conference split sharply—and very publicly—during the government shutdown and Democrats held together as a voting bloc, it's now Senate Republicans who are united against Obamacare while Senate Democrats are watching nervously as the law comes on line.
"I think there's a sense of vindication," said a former GOP Senate leadership aide. "The conference is always stronger when it's unified. I think everybody's on the same song sheet now."
Republicans may agree on their dislike of and desire to repeal Obamacare, but as the shutdown showdown demonstrated, Senate Democrats and the White House will block those efforts. Short of that, then, Republicans have to highlight each of the law's missteps, GOP strategists argue. So expect more bills similar to the Thune-Alexander-Hatch measure.
Still, while they're confident that their position will prove persuasive with voters in 2014, Republicans are wary of the perception that their opposition to Obamacare could come across as abrasive.
"We have to make sure that our tone is more—that old line—more in sorrow than in anger," said a former senior GOP aide. "So that it comes across as more than just a screaming critique."
This article appears in the November 26, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.