Is the GOP Losing Its Anti-Obamacare Zeal?

The latest opening to keep fighting the health care law turned into a total snoozefest.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) reacts as Senate Minority Whip Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) looks on as they speak to members of the media after a Republican Policy Luncheon June 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Senator McConnell spoke on various topics including immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sam Baker
June 4, 2014, 4:09 p.m.

This is the way the Obama­care war ends — not with a bang, but a whim­per.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans are es­sen­tially passing on what was once sup­posed to be the Next Big Obama­care Fight — the con­firm­a­tion of a new Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary. Four­teen Re­pub­lic­ans sided with Demo­crats on a pro­ced­ur­al vote Wed­nes­day, clear­ing the way for Sylvia Math­ews Bur­well to win con­firm­a­tion quickly, eas­ily, and with bi­par­tis­an sup­port.

There are prac­tic­al reas­ons not to pick a big fight over Bur­well: She was already con­firmed 96-0 for a dif­fer­ent job, and she’s well re­garded as a skilled man­ager.

“I think there’s just a fa­tigue amongst elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans on Obama­care.”

But her nom­in­a­tion was a pretty ob­vi­ous hill on which Re­pub­lic­ans could stage an­oth­er battle in their years-long war against Obama­care. They chose not to. And after this, there simply aren’t that many hills left on which to fight.

It’s not just Bur­well: Anti-Obama­care bills in the House have got­ten tamer lately — some of them look an aw­ful lot like fix­ing ob­vi­ous prob­lems with the law, something con­ser­vat­ives once swore they’d nev­er do. There are few­er big-tick­et hear­ings, and even those are of­ten poorly at­ten­ded. Any­one who’s been around Cap­it­ol Hill and health care for the past four years can see it — the anti-Obama­care fire just isn’t burn­ing as hot as it used to.

“I think there’s just a fa­tigue amongst elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans on Obama­care,” said Dan Holler, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for Her­it­age Ac­tion, in an in­ter­view con­duc­ted last month. “There seems to be this hes­it­ancy to talk about Obama­care much.”

In part, any fire dies down over five years. But the tem­per­at­ure on the right also got a lot lower after 8 mil­lion people signed up for cov­er­age through the health care law’s ex­changes.

Her­it­age Ac­tion and some of its closest al­lies — Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz — tried to stoke the flames once Bur­well’s nom­in­a­tion passed (with bi­par­tis­an sup­port) out of com­mit­tee and came to the Sen­ate floor. But they only went so far, de­mand­ing an­swers to a series of ques­tions about the health care law.

“Un­til the Pres­id­ent agrees to of­fer mean­ing­ful re­lief to the mil­lions of people hurt by Obama­care, we should not con­firm this nom­in­ee,” Cruz said in a state­ment fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day’s pro­ced­ur­al vote.

Even that, however, is sig­ni­fic­antly dialed back from Cruz’s rhet­or­ic ahead of last year’s gov­ern­ment shut­down, when he taunted his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans by ar­guing that a vote to keep the gov­ern­ment open was “a vote to fund Obama­care.”

It wasn’t — al­most all of Obama­care’s fund­ing was sep­ar­ate from the bill Cruz blocked. But pre­cisely be­cause of the traits that make Bur­well hard to op­pose — her tal­ent for man­age­ment, and her ap­pet­ite for policy — a vote for Bur­well prob­ably is a vote that will help the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion more ef­fect­ively im­ple­ment the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Yet Cruz hasn’t tried ser­i­ously to put his party on the spot. When asked last month wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans should force a broad­er con­front­a­tion over the Bur­well nom­in­a­tion, Cruz re­spon­ded with a well-worn line about us­ing every op­por­tun­ity to show­case Obama­care’s fail­ings.

None of this is to say that Re­pub­lic­ans now sup­port Obama­care, which they very much do not, or that it won’t be a prob­lem for Demo­crats in this year’s midterms, which it will.

The law is un­pop­u­lar, and its crit­ics feel more strongly than its sup­port­ers. But with pub­lic opin­ion locked in place for months, “Obama­care” has be­come al­most a party-ID ques­tion or a buzzword, rather than a dy­nam­ic is­sue.

The Obama­care war has been a con­stant in polit­ics since 2009, with peaks and val­leys of in­tens­ity. The peaks have al­most al­ways been tied to some ex­tern­al de­vel­op­ment — from the law’s pas­sage, to the Su­preme Court de­cision up­hold­ing it, to delays in the em­ploy­er man­date, to the blun­der­ing launch of Health­Care.gov, to a wave of can­cel­la­tion no­tices.

If past is pro­logue, don’t bet against more delays and policy flubs by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But bar­ring any ma­jor mis­takes, Re­pub­lic­ans don’t have a lot of open­ings left to force the health care law back in­to the head­lines.

The GOP will get some mileage out of 2015 premi­um in­creases as rates trickle out over the sum­mer. But at least so far, the hikes are far smal­ler than what most crit­ics pre­dicted. No one likes a 15 per­cent premi­um in­crease, but that doesn’t look so ter­rible com­pared with crit­ics’ pre­dic­tions that premi­ums would skyrock­et by as much as 300 per­cent. Some car­ri­ers are even cut­ting their prices for next year.

An­oth­er round of plan can­cel­la­tions will also hit shortly be­fore the midterms, al­though health-policy ex­perts say this one will prob­ably be much smal­ler than last year’s.

Whatever open­ings the GOP can find, though, have to com­pete with a stronger-than-ever Demo­crat­ic re­sponse: 8 mil­lion people signed up for cov­er­age through Obama­care’s ex­changes. An­oth­er 3 to 6 mil­lion en­rolled in Medi­caid.

The en­roll­ment num­bers beat the White House’s own pro­jec­tions, and cer­tainly out­stripped Re­pub­lic­ans’ glee­ful pre­dic­tions that people would re­ject the law’s cov­er­age. And they rep­res­ent a comeback from the law’s worst, most glar­ing fail­ure — the launch of Health­Care.gov.

Holler ac­know­ledged last month that “there’s a lot of good news for the law,” but said Re­pub­lic­ans should still fo­cus on premi­ums and the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s uni­lat­er­al delays.

Bur­well’s nom­in­a­tion wasn’t the per­fect ven­ue, he said — the Sen­ate’s minor­ity party doesn’t have much lever­age to stall nom­in­ees any more, and Bur­well has a par­tic­u­larly strong repu­ta­tion. But he put most of the onus on Re­pub­lic­ans.

“Most of this, I think, is fa­tigue,” Holler said.

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