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 Catalin
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Michael Catalin
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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