Republican candidates shift their messages on Obama healthcare law

In a significant development, GOP candidates have embraced a concept that was unthinkable a year ago: fixing President Obama’s landmark law. Others, meanwhile, have offered replacement healthcare plans.

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Senate Republican hopefuls in the House, including Reps. Jack Kingston (Ga.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), have proposed alternatives or voted to repair the law.

Polling shows a majority of people would rather Congress fix the law than scrap it entirely, which is clearly playing a role in the Republican pivot.

Yet, offering to fix a law that is reviled by the GOP base is politically tricky. Some in Republican circles want the law to flop miserably, which would increase the chances of an eventual repeal. 

Kingston, running in a crowded primary for Georgia’s open Senate seat, last week came under fire from conservatives for suggesting the strategy to let the law fail is not “responsible.”

Kingston on Wednesday clarified to The Hill that he meant Republicans should try to “accelerate its demise,” rather than sit back and watch it collapse.

“By saying that’s not a responsible thing to do, I meant to say, if it’s teetering, you have to push it over the cliff,” he said, adding that his fix is in fact meant to dismantle the law.

Kingston has offered a measure that would exempt some small businesses from the ObamaCare mandate to provide insurance to their employees. 

Most House Republicans running for Senate, including Kingston, last month supported a bill proposed by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) that would let people keep their insurance plans. It passed easily. 

Broun was among the four Republicans who voted “no.” He has repeatedly said ObamaCare cannot be fixed.

Cotton, whose bill would require lawmakers to disclose the number of staffers in their offices receiving health insurance under the ObamaCare exchanges, admits that repealing the law with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president is very difficult. 

“I, just like all my colleagues, want to repeal ObamaCare. We think that’s the best solution for the law. But repeal is always going to be hard. Therefore, I think we have a duty as elected leaders to try to do as much as possible to protect our constituents from the harm of the law,” he said.

Over the past six months, a number of vulnerable House Republicans have begun offering alternatives. For example, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) has proposed the HealthCare.gov Spending Accountability Act, which would require disclosures of the use of taxpayer dollars on ads for the law. 

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) in June proposed legislation to repeal the 30-hour definition of full-time employment under the Affordable Care Act. 

Walberg said he takes the president at his word and believes the law won’t be repealed while Obama is in office, though he said nothing “will truly fix the president’s healthcare plan but repeal.”

In the meantime, however, Walberg — who’s a Democratic target for 2014 — said pressures in his district had inspired him to offer what he described as a “substantial repair.” 

“I understand that,” he said of the strategy to let the law fail, “but coming from a part of Michigan, a state that was first into the recession and arguably could be one of the last ones out … my district still has on average higher unemployment than the statewide average.”

 A CBS News poll showed a slight plurality, 48 percent, of Americans in favor of keeping and changing the law, while 43 percent wanted to throw it out entirely. 

In a recent CNN/ORC poll, 54 percent of those surveyed said they believe the law’s implementation problems would eventually be fixed. 

Republicans insist their fixes and alternatives don’t represent an about face and note that the party has offered some 200 proposals on healthcare. However, Republican leaders in Congress have not put forward a unified replacement plan to Obama-Care, a fact the president has pointed out throughout 2013.

Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), reiterated on Wednesday that the party’s official policy on the law is repeal.

“The only way to completely stop the terrible harm being inflicted on families and individuals is through a full repeal of ObamaCare. House Republicans remain committed to a patient-centered approach that lowers healthcare costs and empowers people to choose the plans and doctors they want,” she said.

The Democratic National Committee launched a website Tuesday at GOPHealthCarePlan.com, which suggests the party’s only alternative is repeal.

Broun, a physician, has used his alternative to paint himself as a problem solver in the Georgia Senate race.

“The American public, the American citizens deserve an alternative to this disaster of ObamaCare, and I’ve got the solution,” he told The Hill.

Broun’s bill would repeal ObamaCare and allow consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines, among other changes.

He faces seven Republicans in the primary, including Kingston.

GOP strategist John Feehery, a columnist for The Hill, called the proliferation of fixes “a departure” from GOP orthodoxy.

“It is responsible to talk about trying to fix it, and responsibility seems to be a very rare virtue in politicians these days,” he said.

Mark McKinnon, a strategist for former President George W. Bush, said, “Common-sense conservatives recognize one irrefutable truth, and that is ObamaCare cannot be repealed. So, instead of wasting their time talking about something that can’t possibly happen, they are applying their energy towards something that can.”

Others disagree.

One national Republican strategist involved in House races said GOP internal polling in targeted districts has been “pretty consistent, showing that a majority of voters lean toward wanting to start over fresh” on healthcare reform. That’s particularly true, the strategist added, with the all-important independent voters who could make or break a race in a swing district.

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