House Republicans on Wednesday cast Vice President-elect Mike Pence as a conservative white knight uniquely qualified to dismantle the 2010 health care law, while shrugging off his decision to embrace the law’s Medicaid expansion while governor of Indiana.
Pence huddled in the Capitol with House Republicans on Wednesday about their designs for scrapping President Barack Obama’s signature legislative legacy as Obama rallied House and Senate Democrats to resist those efforts a few hundred feet away in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Pence said President-elect Donald Trump could unveil a series of executive actions as soon as his first day in office to dismantle parts of the health law. Several lawmakers suggested the approach would focus more on rescinding some of Obama’s executive actions related to the health care law than on passing new orders to repeal it.
While Pence, Trump and their allies have focused on rising premiums in health law marketplaces and other problems as justification for a repeal, Democrats say the GOP is threatening the 22 million people who have secured coverage under the overhaul. Obama told reporters as he exited the meeting that he asked Democrats to “look out for the American people.”
Trump aides say Pence, a former six-term congressman before being elected governor in 2012, will serve as the new administration’s point man on repealing and eventually, replacing the health law.
Pence: Repeal and Replace Obamacare ‘First Order of Business’
House Republicans on Wednesday were quick to declare Pence uniquely qualified but were less eager to discuss the Medicaid expansion he engineered in his red state in consultation with Obama’s health care team.
Indiana devised what was billed as a “consumer-driven health plan” to help facilitate the health care law’s broad goals of reducing the number of uninsured Americans. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services signed off on the plan in January 2015. A partial repeal of the law could erode such coverage gains if Congress opts to reduce funding for Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.
“Mike’s a smart guy, and he’s trusted by the conference. He was our conference leader for a couple of years,” said Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson, a top House appropriator who served with Pence in the chamber for over a decade.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a GOP deputy whip, called Pence “the guy that everybody trusts personally … and politically. Our members know he’s the right person to relay our concerns to the president-elect.”
Cole shook his head when asked about Indiana’s Medicaid move, saying Pence “did what he thought was the right thing for his state under the existing legal regime that had been passed by Congress.”
“None of us have any doubt that Mike … doesn’t support Obamacare. … When he was in a position to cast a vote against it, he did,” Cole said. “I don’t begrudge any governor doing what he thinks is right for his state.”
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said the Indiana Medicaid expansion was a moot point.
“Obviously, all those dynamics have changed now that he won’t be the governor of Indiana and he’s the vice president-elect,” Meadows told Roll Call. “When we look at this is a comprehensive way, we’ll be making sure that we can compassionately and fairly provide health insurance to all Americans.”
“Not all states did it,” Meadows said, alluding to the Medicaid expansion. “So as we repeal it, we’re going to address Medicaid in a different fashion.”
Pence’s decision to expand Medicaid became something of a talking point for Democrats eager to show bipartisan collaboration on aspects of the health care law.
Hours after Trump made official Pence’s selection as his running mate last year, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest slyly noted that Pence had worked with the administration on the matter.
The Medicaid expansion rankled many conservatives. Some used terms like “sellout” and accused the Indiana governor of becoming a “big-government” Republican.
For instance, conservative commentator Philip Klein of The Washington Examiner opined that Pence’s decision immediately took him “from hero to zero for many conservatives who care about limiting the size of government.”
For their display of solidarity, Republicans have yet to agree on details of a replacement plan. Last month, Pence said the Trump administration’s efforts would be built around “free-market reforms that reduce the costs of health care without growing the size of government.” The architect of Indiana’s Medicaid approach, Seema Verma, has been nominated to be Trump’s administrator of Medicare and Medicaid.
Pence did not talk specifics about a health care law replacement plan at Wednesday’s meeting, according to lawmakers present. Later, however, the vice president-elect and House Republican leaders described their approach to reporters.
The incoming administration is working on a series of executive orders that would allow for an “orderly transition to take place even as the Congress appropriately debates alternatives to and replacements for Obamacare.”
“We want to make sure as we give relief we do it in a transition where we don’t pull the rug out from under people,” Pence said.
Democrats, meanwhile, scoffed at the GOP’s efforts.
“Republicans don’t know what to do. They are like the dog who caught the bus,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters following the meeting with Obama. The New York Democrat pointed a finger at Republicans for not having an actual replacement plan even as they prepare to send Trump a repeal measure.
Schumer said the GOP will soon learn they can’t simply keep the “good parts” of the law — such as a provision allowing young people to remain on their parents’ plans until they turn 26 or another addressing pre-existing conditions — while just doing away with the rest and still have a functioning health care system.
The Republican onslaught on the health law began midday Tuesday. Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming introduced a budget resolution the GOP intends to use to expedite getting a repeal bill to Trump’s desk.
And Rep. Chris Collins said GOP lawmakers believe they have six months to put together a repeal-replace plan. The New York Republican is a congressional liaison to the president-elect’s transition team.
The speed with which Republicans are moving is one reason Obama made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to rally his troops.
“He basically said he envies us because he’d like to be in office to fight with us,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, who noted that the outgoing president vowed to keep fighting once he becomes a private citizen again on Jan. 20.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, described the president as “very forceful, very constructive,” but declined to give specific details of Obama’s message.
Asked if Democrats would be willing to work with Republicans on crafting a replacement plan, Wyden replied, “Right now, we’re going to fight repeal.”
“We know they have the votes,” he said. “But to have the best possible health policy you got to really lay out the consequences.”
Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California, recently elected to the House Democratic leadership team to represent more junior members, said the president “warned us — and I agree with him — that the replacement part is the most incredibly difficult part.”
Republicans have had “since 2010 to come up with an alternative plan, and they don’t have one,” Cárdenas said. “They’re taking the rhetorical easy part, and we’ve got to make sure we hold the mirror in front of their face and say, ‘OK, what’s the answer?’”
Democrats are already looking toward the 2018 midterm elections as something of a trap for the GOP if they defy voters with their health care plan.
“If Republicans don’t listen to the public, they could pay for it in the midterm elections, especially if they follow through with repeal without a replacement plan,” Cárdenas said. “As soon as they take the first action to repeal it, then they own it.”
Rema Rahman, Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman, Simone Pathé, Alex Roarty, and Joseph P. Williams contributed to this report.