GOP lawmakers bridle at calling Affordable Care Act the law

Greg Nash

ObamaCare has been the law of the land for more than three years, but Republicans still call it a “bill.”

In floor speeches, TV interviews and town halls, Republicans often refer to President Obama’s signature healthcare law either as “ObamaCare” or a healthcare “bill” — subtly implying that it’s not truly permanent.

“The bill is named after the president. Why wouldn't the president want to be under the bill?” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) asked in a floor speech earlier this month, making the case that the president should get his healthcare through ObamaCare.

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Conservatives in the Senate repeatedly called the law a bill last week as they tried to push their colleagues to embrace the possibility of a government shutdown over ObamaCare.

“The very people that this bill is supposed to be helping … are the people it is directly hurting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said during the 21-hour talk-a-thon led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) struck a similar note.

“Really, there are a host of problems, and this bill does nothing to control costs,” he said, later adding “ObamaCare is 100 percent the president's bill.”

The defunding effort met resistance from GOP elders, who accused Cruz of making unrealistic promises to the GOP’s base. Getting rid of ObamaCare with Obama in the White House just isn’t going to happen, they argued.

But even some of the lawmakers who broke with Cruz and Rubio over a shutdown still seemed to imply that ObamaCare wasn’t codified yet.

"This bill is obviously not performing as advertised,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at a news conference last week.

There doesn’t appear to be a coordinated messaging effort among Republicans to stick to the word “bill,” but GOP strategists and activists say it’s a smart move.

People watching cable news sound bites probably wouldn’t pay any attention to whether a lawmaker says “law” or “bill” but calling it a bill might subtly help feed the notion that ObamaCare is “more malleable,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.

“The reason is mostly psychological. … It’s not such a bad idea,” O’Connell said.

Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy at the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, said he likes to use “bill” when talking about ObamaCare, to “emphasize that the law remains quasi illegitimate, because it has never accepted by one of the two major parties.”

After all, Obama’s response to the GOP’s ongoing crusade against his healthcare law has mostly been to accuse Republicans of tilting at windmills. How many times have Obama and administration officials repeated that the Affordable Care Act [ACA] was passed by Congress, signed by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court and validated by Obama’s reelection?

All of that is true, and Republican efforts to cut away important pieces of the law have been unsuccessful. But all the same, the GOP strategy of casting ObamaCare as a subject for negotiation and debate, rather than a settled law, might be working.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that roughly 40 percent of Americans didn’t know that the Affordable Care Act is still on the books. Some thought it had been repealed, others thought the Supreme Court struck it down, and the biggest group just wasn’t sure.

Some Republicans have even used the same messaging strategy to try to persuade Democrats to disown the law.

“I am very concerned that our country is going to suffer because some of our friends think they have to continue to support this dog of a bill,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on the Senate floor earlier this month.

Republican lawmakers, of course, do know that ObamaCare is a law, not a bill. And to be sure, they don’t use “bill” exclusively — but they also won’t move it completely out of the rotation, even three years after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats say the phrasing hasn’t gotten under their skin.

ObamaCare is the law, and with its central provisions set to take effect at the beginning of 2014, Democrats say they’re not sweating over the GOP’s choice of words.

“Regardless of what the ACA has been called, it is all about to get very real for millions of Americans in all fifty states,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. “We are moving to a new phase in this debate, when politics matters less, and the actual results of the new health care law matter more.”

President Obama made a similar argument Thursday about another semantic debate in the healthcare wars.

“Once it's working really well, I guarantee you they will not call it ObamaCare,” the president said.

The White House resisted the ObamaCare label — which originated as a pejorative from conservatives. But the administration ultimately came around to “ObamaCare” more easily than Republicans have come around to “law.”

Shortly after the 2012 election, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) upset many conservatives just by acknowledging that, with Obama’s reelection, the Affordable Care Act was “the law of the land.”

But when Boehner came to the podium for a news conference on Thursday, he began his remarks by saying: “The American people do not want the president’s healthcare bill, and they don’t want the government to shut down.”