Cracks appear in Republican unity on health law reform
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WASHINGTON -- A House vote to fully repeal President Barack Obama's health care law was supposed to be the coup de grace for "Obamacare," a final sweeping away of a law that Republicans thought the Supreme Court would gut and leave for dead.
Instead, the House on Wednesday will take up the repeal measure after the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality was upheld, and amid growing misgivings that relitigating the issue now will make Republicans seem out of touch -- especially when party leaders are still without an alternative.
"Anytime Republicans are debating taxes and the economy, we're winning," said a veteran GOP campaign consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly crossing his party's leadership. "Anytime we're debating health care, they're winning."
The tally Wednesday may be largely unchanged from the first full-repeal vote in February 2011, but the run-up to the vote is shaping up as far different. Republicans will keep fanfare to a minimum, while Democrats try to mount the attacks.
No doctors in white lab coats will be paraded before the television cameras pleading for repeal. The rhetoric is likely to be less about socialized medicine and government takeovers of health care and more about the health care law's effect on the real issue driving the election -- jobs and the economy.
Moreover, divisions are emerging over the wisdom of pulling the law out, root and branch. Some Republicans, facing re-election in swing districts, are openly suggesting that some measures should remain.
Others worry that the GOP leadership has yet to detail how the party would replace the health care law. Freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., an ophthalmologist, said she and others have a clear framework: bolstered health savings accounts, the option to purchase insurance across state lines, medical malpractice limits and a government-subsidized insurance pool for sick people who cannot buy insurance on their own.
But those alternatives have not been broadly aired. "We need to start expressing our principles promptly," she said.
Such concerns are a sharp contrast to the first repeal vote, when a new, vigorous Republican majority was confident that it owed its triumph to voter anger over the health care law. Democrats were on the defensive, with all eyes on which survivors of the 2010 midterm tsunami would switch their votes for the law and embrace repeal. The House voted 245-189 to undo Mr. Obama's signature domestic achievement, with three Democrats joining in.
Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said the health care law was passed "with deception at its core" -- in his view, the Supreme Court has unmasked a penalty for those who fail to purchase health insurance as a tax on the middle class. He said he was still convinced that the issue would be "probably the biggest driver" ensuring GOP victory in November, outside of the tax increases that could come next year with expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts.
His Republican Congressional Committee deputy, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, was more circumspect. "We're going to be talking about jobs and economy, but there are lots of elements to that discussion -- one of them being health care," he said. Democrats, on the other hand, say they'll be playing offense. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started an ad campaign Monday morning portraying Republicans as controlled by insurance companies and intent on taking away the law's popular consumer protections. A series of news conferences are planned that will include real-life families whom Democrats say would be harmed by repeal.
But they will also frame the repeal vote as a political stunt, taking Congress' time away from job-creating legislation. A video released Monday uses House Speaker John A. Boehner's oft-repeated phrase, "Mr. President, where are the jobs?" to mock the repeal exercise. "There's a strong sense that we don't want to carry on this fight, over and over," said former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat running for the Senate. "Let's move on." For Republicans in solidly conservative districts -- a majority of those in the House -- the repeal vote is a no-cost way to energize the base and prove to angry constituents that the fight has not ended.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., spoke of "fire and passion for repeal" still seething in his district. "Activist and average folks regularly bring up full repeal," he said. "They're still keenly aware of it, demand it and understand this law is holding back economic growth."
But GOP campaign consultants are more cautious. Those voters are already energized by the prospect of voting against Mr. Obama in November. How a rehashing of the health care debate will affect independent voters is less clear.
First Published July 10, 2012 12:00 am