Tread lightly on healthcare

Sometimes when the day of reckoning arrives, the polling has shifted. In addition to the ironic new polling showing Democrats’ favorable ratings up since they lost their majority in the House, opposition to the healthcare reform law and support for repealing it have markedly declined. House Republicans, in power just two weeks, have succeeded in repudiating President Obama’s signature achievement by voting to repeal the healthcare law. But as repeal fades from the headlines, and from reality, Republicans must proceed with caution in an ever-shifting political landscape where the economy and deficit reduction are the top priorities of the electorate.

While a new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds majorities of respondents believe the law will cut jobs, hurt the economy and grow the deficit, only 18 percent of respondents support repealing the entire law. A new AP-GfK poll shows that intense opposition to the law has weakened and, remarkably, that among Republicans, support for repeal went from 61 percent following the midterm elections to 49 percent now. The survey showed support vs. opposition at 40/41 percent, a single percentage point that had narrowed from nine points after the election. That same poll shows only 25 percent support for repeal.

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Because several of the law’s appealing benefits kick in early, Democrats have stepped up a public awareness campaign to make sure voters are hearing about free screenings, the ability to keep children on their insurance up until age 26, high-risk insurance pools and the rebate checks seniors are receiving for their prescription drugs. The Health and Human Services Department released a report on the eve of the vote that found 20 percent to 50 percent of Americans under the age of 65 have pre-existing conditions that could keep them from getting healthcare coverage. Since that same study somehow never made its way into the initial debate over healthcare reform, it’s easy to agree with House Republicans who called it a public-relations stunt. Still, it’s dramatic data, nonetheless. 

Since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) isn’t likely to bring the repeal bill up for a vote in the Senate, and the House vote is hardly a threat to the law, it’s easy to agree with Democrats that the House vote was a political stunt. But the vote will be followed by oversight hearings and in all likelihood numerous bills designed to strip onerous and unpopular provisions from the law that Democrats up for reelection in 2012 may find hard to vote against.

But the road to punching holes in the law will be bumpy and fraught with traps.

While House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was telling reporters Tuesday that Republicans surely didn’t intend to ask seniors who fall into the “doughnut hole” and had received $250 rebate checks for their prescription drugs to return the checks if the repeal went through, House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office was circulating a fact-check press release that stated “the Democrats’ ‘fix’ was a backroom deal with PhRMA that will raise prescription drug costs and cost taxpayers tens of billions ... the new healthcare law will increase premiums for 33 million seniors enrolled in Medicare Part D by as much as 9 percent and costs taxpayers $42.6 billion.”

Seniors will want to know, which is it? With repeal behind them, Republicans — who have released no bill of their own but have directed committees to begin the process of writing some — will want to come up with answers soon.

The law might be as weak as the Republicans claim it is. And they may succeed in changing much of it. But it could grow more popular in the months to come. Careful treading will be required.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.