What Republicans Would Give Up to Continue Their Obamacare-Repeal Crusade

The party appears ready to use a technique that would put a repeal bill on Obama’s desk, but some are fretting over what it will cost them.

US President Barack Obama (C) speaks alongside Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), Republican of Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Republican of Kentucky, prior to a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, January 13, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB
National Journal
June 25, 2015, 11:45 a.m.

Des­pite hav­ing their Su­preme Court hopes dashed, Re­pub­lic­ans see a Demo­crat-proof plan to put an Obama­care-re­peal bill on the pres­id­ent’s desk. But they still lack a way to over­come Pres­id­ent Obama’s guar­an­teed veto, and some in the party are con­cerned about what an­oth­er quix­ot­ic re­peal quest would cost them.

Re­pub­lic­ans are look­ing at us­ing budget re­con­cili­ation to re­peal some of the health care law’s most im­port­ant fea­tures. They in­cluded broad re­con­cili­ation lan­guage re­lated to Obama­care in the budget res­ol­u­tion that passed earli­er this year, set­ting them up to use the move later on. The be­ne­fit of the re­con­cili­ation is that it can’t be fili­bustered, leav­ing Sen­ate Demo­crats without a way to kill the meas­ure.

That’s as far as the meas­ure would go: Obama would veto it, and Re­pub­lic­ans can’t over­come that. But get­ting the meas­ure that far seems to be enough for some of the GOP’s lead­ing voices.

Budget re­con­cili­ation, which al­lows meas­ures to avoid the 60-vote threshold in the Sen­ate, wouldn’t al­low for full re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act be­cause it is re­stric­ted to spend­ing and rev­en­ue pro­vi­sions. But Re­pub­lic­ans could still use it to gut some of the law’s cent­ral ele­ments.

Us­ing re­con­cili­ation to pass Obama­care re­peal “has been the plan through the budget dis­cus­sions, and that is the plan now,” Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn said after the Court de­cision. “We are go­ing to vote to re­peal as much of Obama­care as we can. That is the plan. This is not fix­able.”

House Budget Chair­man Tom Price also said after the Court’s rul­ing that he ex­pec­ted Con­gress to use the pro­cess to re­peal as much of the ACA as it could. “I would an­ti­cip­ate that we would move in the dir­ec­tion of re­peal­ing all of Obama­care that can be re­pealed through re­con­cili­ation,” he told re­port­ers.

But if Re­pub­lic­ans opt to use re­con­cili­ation to go after Obama­care, it means they likely won’t be able to use the pro­cess to pass something that might ac­tu­ally have a chance of be­com­ing law.

No Re­pub­lic­an is likely to vote against re­peal­ing the law they hate more than any oth­er, but Rep. Tom Cole, a deputy Re­pub­lic­an whip, lamen­ted that the GOP would be for­go­ing the op­por­tun­ity to pass something else that would not be dead on ar­rival when it reaches the White House. “I cer­tainly would fa­vor the re­peal of Obama­care, but he’s not go­ing to sign that,” Cole said. “So to me, it makes more sense to put something that Demo­crats won’t sup­port that he might sign on his desk.”

Spe­cific­ally, Cole named more Medi­care means-test­ing and changes to the way So­cial Se­cur­ity’s be­ne­fits are in­dexed as pro­pos­als that Re­pub­lic­ans could pur­sue in­stead and that Obama might con­sider ap­prov­ing.

“Both of which would help the coun­try in terms of mak­ing it fisc­ally more se­cure,” said Cole, who made a point to say that the de­cision largely rests with Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. “So why not put something like that, which you might be able to talk the pres­id­ent in­to, as op­posed to something you ab­so­lutely won’t?”

Oth­ers, like Sen. John Thune, have ex­pressed a sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment in the past.

“I’d like to get tax re­form done. I think we could do in­fra­struc­ture in that pro­cess. And I think that’s something that could ac­tu­ally get en­acted…. I mean, we’re go­ing to have a lot of Obama­care votes one way or the oth­er,” Thune said in Janu­ary, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press.

The South Dakota Re­pub­lic­an did, however, say Thursday after the Court rul­ing that the Sen­ate “re­mains com­mit­ted to re­peal­ing this fun­da­ment­ally broken law and re­pla­cing it with pa­tient-centered re­forms that work for the Amer­ic­an people.”

Some mem­bers were skep­tic­al that any such com­prom­ises could be reached with the White House any­way. “I don’t know that he’s go­ing to sign any­thing that we do on re­con­cili­ation that would be­ne­fit any­body,” said Re­pub­lic­an Rep Lynn West­mo­re­land.

And if Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship passed on a re­con­cili­ation-to-re­peal plan, they’d likely face a re­volt from some of the party’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers—a struggle sim­il­ar to the 2013 fracas in which Sen. Ted Cruz pushed his party to shut down the gov­ern­ment un­less Demo­crats agreed to void the law.

Cruz pushed for an­oth­er re­peal ef­fort Thursday. “Ab­so­lutely, we should use re­con­cili­ation to re­peal Obama­care, to place it on Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk and to force him to veto it,” the Texas Re­pub­lic­an told re­port­ers. “Be­cause we prom­ised the Amer­ic­an people, and it’s im­port­ant that we ac­tu­ally hon­or the com­mit­ments we made to the voters who elec­ted us.”

Neither House Speak­er John Boehner nor Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell com­mit­ted to us­ing re­con­cili­ation to re­peal the law after the Court’s rul­ing, though that doesn’t mean that they won’t. Boehner said at a press con­fer­ence that Re­pub­lic­ans had spent the last few months ex­pect­ing to win the King v. Bur­well case and so they were still ad­just­ing to the new real­ity.

“Most of the dis­cus­sion so far was if the Court ruled against the ad­min­is­tra­tion in King v. Bur­well what the re­sponse would be,” Boehner said.

Sen­ate Demo­crats, on the oth­er hand, aren’t too con­cerned with what Re­pub­lic­ans de­cide to do with re­con­cili­ation—al­though they do have a bit of ad­vice: “They can do whatever they want to do. I think they should get real and for­get about Obama­care,” Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id told re­port­ers at a press con­fer­ence. “I think they should do something that has some last­ing im­pact, not something the pres­id­ent will veto.”

Some Demo­crats had hoped that the Su­preme Court’s de­cision would cre­ate a polit­ic­al de­tente in which the two parties could work to­geth­er to make some changes to the law. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she had a list of changes she’d like to see that Re­pub­lic­ans might be in­ter­ested in get­ting on board with.

Demo­crat­ic Whip Dick Durbin said he’d en­ter­tain “the res­taur­ant is­sue,” the num­ber of em­ploy­ees and how many hours they work—thresholds that trig­ger the law’s em­ploy­er man­date.

“I hope we can get bey­ond this con­front­a­tion­al ap­proach to this bill and we can sit down and do something con­struct­ive on a bi­par­tis­an basis. I think there are parts of the bill that can be im­proved and changed, and I hope Re­pub­lic­ans will now be will­ing to talk to us,” Durbin said.

If re­peal by re­con­cili­ation, however, is still the Re­pub­lic­an game plan, the op­tim­ism starts to evap­or­ate.

“When they are talk­ing about in­tro­du­cing an amend­ment to re­peal Obama­care, I don’t know where that ad­vances any of this,” Heitkamp said. “I like to say it has been on pause wait­ing for this de­cision. The pause but­ton has been lif­ted. Now it is time to talk about what we need to fix.”

Fawn Johnson contributed to this article.
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