By Sarah Ferris and Elise Viebeck - 11/12/14 06:55 PM EST
Comments about voter stupidity made by an ally of the Obama administration are turning into conservatives’ newest weapon against the president’s healthcare law.
A series of unearthed videos of ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber insulting U.S. voters while saying a “lack of transparency” helped Congress pass the healthcare law are attracting serious attention on the right just as Republicans prepare to take control of the Senate.
Add a wave of interest from Republican lawmakers and increasing scrutiny from the mainstream media, and you have the latest flashpoint in the abiding partisan war over ObamaCare, just ahead of the start of the law’s second enrollment periodon Saturday.
Gruber, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also helped craft that state’s healthcare reform law, said Tuesday that he regrets saying ObamaCare passed because of the “stupidity of the American voter.”
Two additional videos have been released since then. In those clips, Gruber said the law’s passage relied on “basic exploitation of [voters’] lack of economic understanding,” and that Americans are “too stupid to understand" the law's so-called Cadillac tax.
Republicans have pounced on the remarks and are already weighing congressional hearings, which would create an enormous headache for Democrats.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a candidate for chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Wednesday that he supports a hearing, though his spokesman said no event had yet been scheduled.
“We may want to have hearings on this,” Jordan told The Washington Post. “We shouldn't be surprised they were misleading us.”
Republicans have long charged that the healthcare reform bill was pushed through without public scrutiny. A gaffe from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2010 added to this impression.
“We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it, away from the fog of the controversy,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi argues the remark was taken out of context and that she was referring to the uncertainty about what legislation would emerge from the Senate. But the comment still echoes in conservative rhetoric four years later.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he was “sure” that Gruber would be brought to Congress to testify.
The comments confirmed his suspicions that the Obama administration had been dishonest about the law, Shelby said.
“A lot of us questioned, when they were proposing it, questioned a lot of things,” he said. “They had the numbers and they ran it through. Now we realize a lot of things were being questioned inside the administration, that it was not going to work as they said.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said the comments should not be used to attack the substance of the law.
“Obviously these comments were misguided – even he admits that – but it is even more misguided for Republicans to try to use them as part of a cynical political campaign to cut healthcare for millions of Americans,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in a statement to The Hill.
Democratic strategist and former Clinton administration official Chris Lehane also dismissed the flare-up, comparing Republicans circling around ObamaCare to “six years olds bunched up around a soccer ball — and never getting a real shot off.”
“The comments are so old that they have mold on them,” Lehane said of Gruber’s remarks.
“I have little doubt the Republicans who when in the minority refused and rejected compromise, including on their own policies, will blow up their own narrative about seeking compromise over their excitement to try feed their base.”
But others pointed out that incremental release of videos could hurt the administration during a sensitive week, with less than three days before ObamaCare’s exchanges open again for enrollment.
“This becomes a distraction and a problem for the White House if the new open enrollment period is a problem,” said one D.C.-based Democratic strategist who worked on ObamaCare.
“If that goes off well, if the website is running much more smoothly, this will just look like Republicans re-litigating stuff about the process from five years ago. If not, these [videos] become a bigger headache.”
The release of Gruber comments occurs just as the Obama administration takes pains to lower expectations ahead of its second sign-up period, hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s crisis.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said Tuesday that she’s hoping for 9.1 million enrollees for 2015, markedly less than the 13 million projected by the Congressional Budget Office.
Democrats’ drubbing in the midterm elections, meanwhile, has taken focus off better news for ObamaCare and put it back on how Republicans hope to dismantle the law next year.
On MSNBC Tuesday morning, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean acknowledged that Gruber's comments have stung the party, though he downplayed the professor’s role in the law’s passage.
“He's a consultant, not the architect [of] ObamaCare,” Dean said, adding: “I’m not excusing the language — it’s terrible.”