GOP seeks to rebound as Democrats hit reset on healthcare reform debate

The Supreme Court ruling on healthcare reform has upended the parties’ messaging war, and led to a series of adjustments on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans, still reeling from the conservative-leaning court’s decision to uphold President Obama’s signature law, are looking to regain their political legs. Democrats, who were pummeled by the GOP over the last couple of years on healthcare, are going on offense.

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House GOP leadership officials have scheduled a floor vote on repealing the law next week in what will represent the opening of a new chapter in the intense message battle.

Throughout the 2009 and 2010 debate on the bill, Democrats were divided on what direction to pursue on healthcare. Republicans, meanwhile, were united in their opposition.

The political dynamic continued after Obama signed the unpopular measure into law, evidenced by the GOP’s historic electoral victories in 2010.

But now, Republicans are fractured on whether the individual mandate is a tax or a penalty, and are openly worried that they are running out of time in their quest to repeal “ObamaCare.”

In this new round, Republicans face newly empowered Democrats eager for a second chance to convince the public on the merits of the law.

Democrats are also anxious to exploit weaknesses in the GOP’s presumptive presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who played into opponents’ hands this week when his campaign veered from the party line on the ruling. 

The floor vote in the House could open Republicans up to charges that they are losing their focus on the economy, especially in light of a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll that found political independents are tiring of the debate.

Among independents who don’t favor either party, 51 percent said it was time to move on, while 35 percent said efforts to halt the law should continue, according to the poll.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) previewed Democrats’ rebuttal to the vote when she responded to Friday’s disappointing jobs numbers.

“Republicans are wasting more time next week on another partisan vote to repeal patients’ rights and benefits — even as Americans’ top priority remains job creation,” she said in a statement. 

A memo from her office was more cutting: “GOP Forecast: Hot Air on Healthcare, No Jobs.” 

The GOP’s post-ruling narrative, which renders the health law’s insurance mandate as a major tax increase, appeared to be gaining steam until a senior Romney adviser stepped on it. 

Romney actually agreed with Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent, Eric Fehrnstrom said on MSNBC, which “very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax.” 

“The governor believes what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty” too, Fehrnstrom added, referring to another stumbling block for Romney.  

The remarks sent shockwaves through the party, prompting damage control by the candidate himself. 

“While I agreed with the dissent, that’s taken over by the fact that the majority of the court said it’s a tax, and therefore it is a tax,” Romney told CBS.

The Obama campaign quickly seized on the comments, as did left-leaning blogs and liberal pundits. 

The silver lining for Republicans is that the health law remains unpopular, and the high court’s ruling has helped their fundraising efforts. 

Pelosi admitted in a recent interview that “more needs to be done” to highlight the law’s benefits. 

Yet, the apparent about-face by Romney plays into one of the strongest arguments against him, said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane: His “flip flops.”

“The Obama people are not going to debate this purely as a healthcare matter,” Lehane said. “They are going to drive the negative narrative that you cannot trust Romney.” 

Obama this week took dead aim at Romney’s shift on healthcare, saying that as president, “you can’t switch on a dime.”

Despite the court ruling, Republicans are expected to remain united on eradicating the law. With Democrats, the picture is more complicated. Three members of the House Democratic Caucus voted in favor of repeal last year, allowing Republicans to call the effort “bipartisan.” Another Democrat, Rep. Larry Kissell (N.C.), has vowed to join the law’s opponents next week. Republicans are targeting Kissell’s seat this fall.

Republicans may also force another repeal vote in the Senate to put pressure on vulnerable Democrats, though the timing of that roll call is not clear.  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made the strategy explicit in an op-ed piece published Friday. 

“It’s time for Democrats to stop defending the indefensible and to join us in repealing this colossal mistake,” McConnell wrote. 

“The court has now spoken: [The mandate] is a tax. It falls primarily on middle-class individuals and families.” 

Chris Arterton, a professor at George Washington University, said pivoting the debate toward taxes is the GOP’s best path forward. 

“Everyone on both sides of the aisle recognizes the economy is going to the critical factor here,” he said. 

“Republicans will promote the mandate as a tax because Obama promised not to raise taxes on the middle class.”