Daschle: Defunding by GOP is biggest threat to Obama’s healthcare law

Even if Republicans can't repeal President Obama's healthcare law, they could do significant damage by cutting off its funding, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Wednesday.

Dashle — who was Obama’s first pick to lead the Health and Human Services Department and help shepherd healthcare reform through Congress — said the Supreme Court’s healthcare decision provided certainty to states and business interests, who can now move forward relatively sure that healthcare reform will remain the law of the land.

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The court mostly upheld the Affordable Care Act, though it said states must be able to opt out of the law’s Medicaid expansion.

In the wake of the court’s ruling, congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney have pledged to repeal the healthcare law if their party makes big enough gains in November.

Repeal, though, is an uphill climb. Daschle said the law faces a bigger threat from efforts to choke off the funding needed to implement key provisions.

“I’m not as worried on the policy side as I am the budgetary side,” Daschle said Wednesday at a forum organized by DLA Piper, where he is a senior adviser.

Outright repeal would require Republicans to win the White House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate — a long shot, even by the most ambitious projections.

If Romney wins and Republicans pick up a majority in the Senate, but fall short of 60 votes, they could try to repeal parts of the law using the process known as “reconciliation.” Parts of the law were passed through reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes for passage.

But reconciliation probably couldn’t be used to repeal the whole law, and using it to chip away at certain provisions could prove messy. Cutting off funding could be easier, especially in a time of widespread budget-cutting.

“With all due respect to Gov. Romney, there’s no way in the world he alone can just repeal it on his first day in office,” said DLA Piper partner Mike Castle, a former Republican governor of Delaware who also represented the state in Congress.

Even with Obama still in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate, congressional Republicans have already succeeded in peeling away funding from the healthcare law’s prevention fund.

They’ve also made changes to the law’s insurance subsidies — one of its most expensive provisions. Rolling back federal assistance to help people buy insurance could mean that fewer people will use the law’s insurance exchanges, weakening the central component of the Affordable Care Act.

Castle and Daschle both said the presidential race is too close to predict at this point.

“It could go either way,” Daschle said. Predicting which party will control the Senate is also “a 50-50 proposition,” in Daschle’s view.

Daschle acknowledged that Democrats and the Obama administration haven’t been able to build broad public support for the healthcare law. Polls consistently show that public opinion of the law is divided about evenly. Salesmanship has been Democrats’ “largest failure” in the healthcare effort, Daschle said.

“On messaging, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “It has to start with the president, it has to start with people like me who feel very strongly” that the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction.