House Republicans Are Handing Vulnerable Democrats Obamacare Gifts

Measures to change Obamacare can help, not hurt, some Democrats’ voting records.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) march in the 29th annual Kingdom Day Parade on January 20, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Kingdom Day Parade honors the memory of African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and coincides with Martin Luther King Day.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
March 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.”

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