Former HHS chief: GOP shouldn't try to repeal healthcare reform

Repealing the new healthcare reform law is a futile exercise, and therefore Republicans shouldn't even attempt it, according to a leading Republican healthcare expert. 

Tommy Thompson, the head of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former President George W. Bush, said the GOP will lack the votes next year to repeal the law in full, so leaders should focus their energies elsewhere instead. 

"When it's all said and done, you're not going to be able to repeal healthcare because President Obama is not going to sign it," Thompson said during a Tuesday interview with CNBC. "And they don't have enough votes to override a veto, so why push a cart uphill when you know it's not going to be able to get to the top?"

Thompson, the former GOP governor of Wisconsin, said there's "no question" that healthcare reform will remain a contentious issue next year, but predicted that it won't be "front and center."

Instead, he said, "spending and taxes are going to be the major issues that are going to decide how far we go in the next session of Congress."

The reason is not just that the still-struggling economy has moved all other issues — healthcare, climate change, finance reform, two ongoing wars — to the back-burner. Many specifics about the healthcare law remain unknown because Congress punted so many decisions to HHS officials, Thompson noted.

"The problem is the health care is still being written," he said. "There's so much that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, [Kathleen] Sebelius, has still got to put together in the rules, that most people are just still bewildered by the magnitude of healthcare and how it's going to play out."

That makes it difficult for critics "to point at any particular thing" that could rally support behind full repeal of the law, Thompson predicted. 

"The overall healthcare [debate] is going to really have to take a wait-and-see attitude before all the rules are done and drafted. And that's going to take a lot of months of drafting and hearings and so on," he said. "So more of the health care process is going to be taking place on the administrative side of government rather than on the legislative wing."

Taking Thompson's advice has its own perils for Republicans. Indeed, when Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) — who's among the most consistent critics of deficit spending on Capitol Hill — suggested last month that Republicans should restructure the healthcare reform law in lieu of repeal, conservative blogs and talk-show hosts were quick to fire off a warning.

"Obama and the Democrats are gonna be back in power if that's the way you're gonna approach this," Rush Limbaugh said, citing a conversation with GOP donors.