Overreach on Obamacare? No Way! Republicans Say

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas(R) and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah attend a hearing on sequestration effects on military budget and spending before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 7, 2013.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Nov. 25, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

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.”

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