Democratic rout sparks debate over mandate for healthcare reform repeal

President Obama pushed back Wednesday against the notion that his party's midterm rout amounts to a mandate for the GOP to repeal Democrats' healthcare reform law.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued the opposite.

"We'd be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the past two years," Obama told reporters.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), however, told CBS News on Tuesday that he wants to put a repeal bill on the floor "right away" when Congress reconvenes in January.

"Tonight's election is about listening to the people, and that was the message that's being sent across this land, is they don't like this healthcare bill, and they want to see us focus on jobs, and there's just been no results that match the expectations of the people," Cantor said. "So I believe that when we take [over] in January, I hope that we're able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that's what the American people want."

To be sure, dozens of Democrats who voted for their party's signature domestic achievement paid a hefty price at the polls: At least 33 Democrats who lost reelection Tuesday had voted for the bill. 

But voting against the bill was no guarantee of survival either. Seventeen of the 34 Democrats who voted against the bill lost reelection to the House, while "no" vote Charlie Melancon lost his challenge to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

State referendums on the individual mandate were also split. Arizona and Oklahoma voted to amend their state constitutions to protect citizens from the federal requirement that they buy insurance, while Colorado rejected its citizen ballot initiative on the issue.

And in exit polling, fewer than 20 percent of respondents said healthcare reform was the main motivator for their vote. Adding to the confusion, 48 percent of respondents said they favored repeal, while 31 percent wanted the law to be expanded and 16 percent said it should be left alone.

The expected speaker-to-be, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), for his part fell short of calling for immediate repeal on Tuesday.

"The American people are concerned about the government takeover of health care," Boehner said. "I think it’s important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity and replace it with commonsense reforms that will bring down the cost of health insurance in America."

Obama, for his part, offered to work with Republicans on amending the law.

"Now, if Republicans have ideas on how to improve our healthcare system, if they want to suggest modifications that would deliver faster, more effective reform to a healthcare system that has been wildly expensive for too many families, businesses and certainly for the federal government, I'm happy to consider some of those ideas," he said. "There are going to be examples where we can tweak and make improvements on the progress that we've made. That's true of any piece of legislation."

The president in particular said the so-called "1099" provision of the bill, which requires businesses to file IRS tax forms on many of their purchases, was "too burdensome" and "probably counterproductive."

Outside observers said Republicans should view the elections as a mandate to do what Boehner has said he wants to do: go through regular order and the slow and deliberative committee process to air out differences and produce compromise legislation.

"Half the bill is terrific," former Energy and Commerce health subcommittee head Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) said at a post-election briefing organized by Disruptive Women in Health Care.

And former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.) said the poll results suggest that most Americans want to repeal healthcare reform but don't know what's in it. 

If Republicans tackle the bill with an axe instead of a scalpel, he said, many Americans will respond "that's not what I meant when I said I was in favor of repeal."

Slattery also expressed hope that Tuesday's vote would spark Democrats in competitive races — he mentioned Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Ben Cardin (Md.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) — to become "more receptive"  to the idea of amending healthcare reform "in a cooperative fashion with Republicans."