Congressional Republicans are looking to rebound from a stinging legislative defeat and reclaim the political high ground by employing a "repeal and replace" health care strategy as a component of a broader focus on the economy.
Recognizing that President Barack Obama would veto any attempt to repeal the new health care law and replace it with a GOP alternative, Republican leaders eyeing the potential for big electoral gains in November are set to campaign on swapping out what they view as the most egregious and problematic provisions of the $940 billion package.
Senate Republicans outlined their health care policy initiatives Friday in a strategy memorandum.
However, Republicans intend health care to play second fiddle to the party's planned focus on economic growth and job creation. Attacking the new health care law, GOP aides and party strategists explained, will simply serve to supplement the minority's case to voters that the president and Democratic majorities have mishandled the economy. House and Senate Republican leaders are in the process of coordinating the politics and policy of the message.
"Repeal and replace is not going to be the case that Republicans make to the voters. But it will be a component," a senior Republican Senate aide said. "What we're going to be focused on is how health care impacts the economy. I don't anticipate a single Republican spending their entire month of October 2010 talking about the ins and outs of health care policy."
With the public divided over the new health care law and unemployment near 10 percent, Congressional Republicans plan an aggressive push to put the Democrats on the defensive between now and Election Day. The multitrack GOP strategy on health care and the economy is likely to include an under-the-Dome legislative element, while also manifesting on the campaign trail in various forms.
The "repeal and replace" slogan appeals to GOP strategists on the Hill because it offers a framework large enough to accommodate moderates and conservatives and the differing opinions they may have in the wake of health care reform becoming law. Congressional Republican leaders like the strategy because it fits with the practical limitations inherent in countering the overhaul, no matter how successful the GOP might be in the midterm elections.
"What we'd like to do is see this bill never become law [and] replace it with constructive solutions to specific problems, like those that we have been promoting for the past year," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. "As a practical matter, as long as Barack Obama is president, about the best you're ever going to be able to do is to repeal parts of it. But it's nice to have a goal out there that you're shooting for."
Democrats contend that this policy strategy is a political loser.
"The push to repeal this bill and put insurance companies back in charge seems like a sure winner for the Democrats," a senior Democratic Senate aide said. "There's been a huge uptick in approval ratings for Democrats after these past two weeks, and a Republican push to undo stuff like kicking you off your insurance because of a pre-existing condition is perhaps the biggest loser of an argument we've ever heard — and a fight we welcome."
GOP leaders repeatedly emphasized in the days after Obama signed health care reform into law that their primary focus in the coming months will be economic recovery and job creation. Most public opinion polls have shown this issue to rank far ahead of health care in terms of importance to the electorate.
But with Democrats and Obama campaigning hard to sell a skeptical public on the overhaul, health care is likely to remain near the forefront of discussion. Accordingly, Republicans are moving to harness the anger that the law has generated among the GOP base, while still appealing to independent voters who are more receptive to discussing practical health care solutions.
"Rather than sort of be a dog with a bone and want to continue to gnaw on the bone, I think we need to make it relevant to what people care about, which is jobs," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), who is hoping to win races this fall in states as politically diverse as Arkansas and Illinois.
A strategy memorandum prepared for Senate Republicans to use during the two-week spring recess shed some light on what "repeal and replace" could mean to the GOP in terms of policy. Some of the provisions of the law that Republicans would target for repeal: "Medicare cuts; Tax hikes; Mandates; Sweetheart deals." Some of the policies that they would look to implement as replacements: "Small business health plans; purchase across state lines; limit junk lawsuits; state incentives to lower costs."
The recess strategy sheet also suggests Republicans have no intention of doing away with the new law's popular provisions, including prohibiting insurance companies from refusing coverage based on a pre-existing medical condition, prohibiting insurers from capping coverage and requiring that insurers allow dependent children to stay on their parents' policy until age 26.
But Republicans said the changes that they want to make will languish if they don't win more seats.
"I don't think anybody in America believes that under the current makeup you're going to repeal anything," said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who is up for re-election. "That's why I think the repeal is the Member of Congress that voted for it."