Although they’ve called repeatedly for repeal of the Democrats’ new health reform law, some senior Senate Republicans have not endorsed a bill that would actually do it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), GOP Conference Chair Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Conference Vice Chair Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have all argued that the reforms — passed in March without Republican support — will hike costs and erode services, and therefore should be scrapped. Yet they haven’t signed on to their party’s repeal proposal.
That McConnell, Alexander and Murkowski haven’t done the same, some experts say, could erode the Republicans’ election-year message that the Democrats’ health reforms will do more harm than good.
“Unified party positions are better than divided party positions,” Julian Zelizer, a congressional expert at Princeton University, said in an e-mail. “When the GOP is not all on board with legislation,” he added, Democrats can argue “Republicans calling for repeal are on the wrong track.”
“Equally important, in an age of party unity, when divisions like this emerge it suggests [what] pollsters are saying: there is support for the healthcare bill in red America,” he said.
Jonathan Oberlander, health policy professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the Republicans’ repeal push could be an indicator of the split between GOP leaders and the Tea Party movement’s conservatives.
“Will the GOP leadership be able to ride the tiger and move even further rightward to [appease the Tea Partiers],” Oberlander asked, “or is this a sign of more splits to come between more pragmatic elements in the leadership and more ideological elements outside of Washington?”
The offices of McConnell and Murkowski did not respond to requests for comment. NRSC spokesman Nick Simpson said that GOP leaders “support repealing the Democrats' health care law and then replacing it with alternatives that lower costs while improving access.” He could not explain why some of those same leaders have not endorsed the repeal legislation.
From a policy standpoint, the issue is largely meaningless: The repeal bill has no chance of moving through Congress with Democrats in charge and President Barack Obama in the White House. But it raises an important political question in an equally important election year: How successfully can Republicans run on a platform of healthcare repeal when some of the party’s top lawmakers don’t support the bill?
The repeal issue drew headlines on Wednesday after leading House Republicans — including Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) — were criticized for not endorsing discharge petitions that would force a House vote on healthcare repeal. Under pressure, Boehner and Cantor announced they would get on board.
“We are committed to repealing ObamaCare and replacing it with common-sense reforms that will lower health care costs for families and small businesses,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement, “and both petitions move us closer to that goal.”
That sounds a lot like the message from McConnell, Alexander and Murkowski in recent months.
“I can tell you with the campaign that will continue with the American people, I think the slogan will be ‘repeal and replace,’ ” McConnell told reporters in March, just after the reform bill was passed.
Earlier in the month, Alexander was asked if Republicans would run on a platform of repeal this year. “I think that’s exactly right,” he told Fox News.
Murkowski addressed the issue recently on the Senate floor.
“This law is not what the American people wanted and it's not what our president promised," she said.
“I believe that the legislation has to be repealed and it’s got to be replaced with sensible alternatives that are widely supported.”
How to repeal it, though, was left unmentioned.