With an expected assist from the new House GOP majority, Senate Republicans are planning an aggressive push next year to disrupt — and if possible, dismantle — President Barack Obama’s landmark health care reform law.
Senate Republicans are cognizant of the practical limitations of their minority status and the president’s veto pen, and they have made a concerted effort not to raise expectations. But discussions with key Republican Senators and staff before Christmas revealed that the GOP intends to do everything it can to repeal the law and replace it with reforms deemed sensible and friendly to job growth.
“It’s high on our agenda,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. “We’re committed to trying to repeal it; and, if that doesn’t work, to go step by step to reduce its effect — especially on job creation. So, I expect to see us regularly dealing with health care.”
“We’ll do our best to cooperate with the House and to take their initiatives and to move them through the Senate,” Alexander added. “But we’re going to count on the House of Representatives to do a lot of the heavy lifting.”
Regardless of whether Congressional Republicans are successful, their efforts — not to mention the handful of legal challenges to the health care law’s constitutionality currently winding their way through the federal courts — all but assure that the issue will re-emerge as major political and legislative boilerplate in 2011.
Many Democrats appear happy to reprise this fight, which consumed nearly three-quarters of the 111th Congress, subsiding only when Obama signed health care reform into law in late March.
“I think they’re going to run into a brick wall,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is up for re-election in 2012 in a state that swung heavily right on Nov. 2. “I think it goes nowhere. I don’t know how they’re going to explain their wanting to go back and visit that instead of working towards job issues.”
Alexander said Senate Republicans, recognizing the potential pitfall of focusing on health care to the detriment of jobs and the issues of government spending and debt, plan to wrap their arguments for the full repeal of the health care law around job creation and economic growth. As Conference chairman, Alexander’s job is to develop Republican messaging.
Whether rhetorically or through legislative proposals to repeal the law or provisions of it that have yet to go into effect, the Republicans will contend that dismantling and blocking the law will lead to reduced unemployment. A few areas the GOP plans to focus on include the law’s expansion of Medicaid, the state-run health insurance programs that serve the poor; the federal mandate forcing all Americans to purchase coverage; and a new tax reporting provision that businesses have complained is too onerous.
Senate Republicans will be looking to their counterparts in the House to halt the necessary funding and conduct sharp oversight of the law as an effective means to build support for a full repeal on Capitol Hill, as well as among the public. They also believe that court challenges will aid their campaign. But Republican Senators also intend to be proactive.
“There will be the usual effort by a lot of us to try, if not repeal the darn thing, replace it with something that will work,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who will take over as ranking member of the Finance Committee in January and be in a position to drive the GOP repeal effort in his chamber. “I want good health care for our people, but that bill is a travesty. It’s an expensive travesty and a political boondoggle.”
Senate Democrats were united in their support of the health care reform law upon final passage last spring. But the measure maintains varying degrees of support throughout the country, and some Democrats are expressing a willingness to at least make adjustments to the law, conceding its imperfections. The RealClearPolitics.com average of all polls released Aug. 27 to Dec. 18 showed support for the law at 40.6 percent and opposition at 52.1 percent.
Sen. Jon Tester said he is open to making improvements to the law. The Montana lawmaker is one of nearly a dozen Democrats up for re-election in 2012 in states that either tilt Republican or performed well for the GOP on Nov. 2.
“I think there’s going to be plenty opportunity to take the health care bill and make it into a better bill,” Tester said. “I am absolutely open to everybody’s ideas — Democrat, Republican, independent and everybody in between. Let’s look at the options, if we can make it better, hell yes, let’s do it.”
Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) plans to continue his practice of taking to the floor once a week to deliver a speech critical of the law. Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon, calls this messaging campaign “a doctor’s second opinion,” and he uses it to both offer suggestions for how to change it and to dissect the law to expose what he contends are flaws.
Republicans believe their push to block implementation of the law and help lay the foundation for repeal will be significantly boosted by the thousands of regulations that the Department of Health and Human Services is writing to comply with the reform legislation’s directives. Barrasso, highlighting his negative view of already-written regulations and how they have been applied, confirmed that this would be an area the GOP focuses on.
“We can certainly try to force a vote on it,” the Wyoming Republican added. “We have a number of issues, though, that we’re going to come up with, related to health care, with repealing and replacing.”
Most Democrats remain committed to preserving and enhancing the health care law. The law includes several provisions sought for decades by Democratic presidents and Congressional leaders, including a ban on insurance companies refusing to sell coverage based on a pre-existing conditions, an elimination of financial caps on coverage and allowing children to stay on their parents’ policy until age 26.
The law also expands access to Medicaid as a means to provide coverage to the uninsured. Democrats, citing projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, argue that the law will help reduce the deficit, although Republicans — referring to other studies — have countered those findings.
Some liberal Democrats fought for a more expansive health care overhaul and were unhappy with the compromises accepted by Obama to help secure passage of the legislation. But even they see the law as a signature achievement and are unwilling to stand by as the Republicans move to overturn their work.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, pushed hard to add the public insurance option to the health care law. He smiled, and was silent for a few moments, when asked how the majority is likely to respond to Republican effort to throw the new law out.
“The fight I’m happy to have is to make sure we have a health care system that guarantees health care to all people in a cost-effective way. I hope that my state of Vermont will lead the country in moving toward a single-payer system,” Sanders said. “I have the feeling, in many ways, our Republican friends are going to try to dismantle many programs which benefit working families, and that has to be fought vigorously.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.