Battle lines drawn on ObamaCare repeal

Battle lines drawn on ObamaCare repeal
© Greg Nash

Democrats and Republicans are honing their lines of attack for a battle over ObamaCare repeal that is likely to consume Washington for much of the year. 

The messaging war started in earnest Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans huddled in separate meetings to discuss strategy.

Vice President-elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time On The Money: Trump, Dems battle over border wall before cameras | Clash ups odds of shutdown | Senators stunned by Trump's shutdown threat | Pelosi calls wall 'a manhood thing' for Trump MORE met with both House and Senate Republicans and emphasized that repeal of ObamaCare will be the first order of business for Republicans under President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE.

"The president-elect and I, working with the leaders of the House and Senate, are determined to keep our promise to the American people and that all begins with repealing and replacing the failed policy of ObamaCare." 

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House Republicans discussed getting a repeal bill to Trump’s desk by Feb. 20, a fast timetable.

President Obama, meanwhile, made a rare visit to the Capitol to rally Democrats for the fight against repeal of the law.

Democrats don't have the votes needed to block ObamaCare repeal, as the measure will only need 50 votes to clear the upper chamber under a special budgetary tactic known as reconciliation. 

With few legislative options at their disposal, the best hope for Democrats is to rally public opinion to their side.

The Democrats warned Wednesday their GOP colleagues would pay a heavy political price for taking health insurance away from roughly 20 million people. Describing the turmoil to come, their buzzword has become “chaos.” 

"They want to repeal it and then try to hang it on us, not going to happen," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, Democratic leaders go toe-to-toe at White House Overnight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Trump moves to ease Obama water rule | EPA document contradicts agency over water rule data| Manchin to be top Dem on Senate Energy panel Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters. "They're going to own it and all the problems in the healthcare system."

Co-opting Trump's campaign slogan, the Democrats repeatedly accused Republicans and the president-elect of threatening to "make America sick again."

“We're united in our opposition to these Republican attempts to make America sick again,” Schumer said.

Schumer added that he told Pence in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that it is Republicans’ “obligation” to come up with a replacement plan for ObamaCare, and Democrats would only come to the table after Republicans have put something forward.

Republicans have a very different take. ObamaCare, they emphasize, is already broken beyond repair, with repeal the only option for getting America’s healthcare system back on track. 

“The law is failing while we speak,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Stefanik: GOP leaders need to step up their female recruitment efforts McConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill MORE (R-Wis.) told reporters after the meeting with Pence. “We need to reverse the damage that has been done.” 

President-elect Donald Trump amplified that message, tweeting Wednesday that ObamaCare “will fall of its own weight” and that “Republicans must be careful in that the Dems own the failed ObamaCare disaster.”

Democrats have pushed back on the idea ObamaCare is already collapsing, in part by citing a report from financial analysts Standard & Poors last month that found that insurer finances on the law’s exchanges are improving and large premium hikes this year were a "one-time pricing correction.” 

Bolstering Democrats further, enrollment in ObamaCare has spiked since the election, with 8.8 million people signing up so far for 2017, compared to 8.6 million at this point last year.  

Republicans still have major obstacles ahead. They have broadly discussed delaying the date when ObamaCare repeal takes effect, but have not decided when that will be. Options floated range from two years to four years.

Some Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are uneasy with the idea of repealing ObamaCare without a replacement immediately available, even if repeal is delayed from taking effect.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLimited Senate access to CIA intelligence is not conspiracy Dems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator' Rand Paul downplays potential Trump campaign finance violations: 'We’ve over-criminalized campaign finance' MORE (R-Ky.) this week became the latest Republican to call for simultaneous repeal and replacement.

Two leading conservative healthcare scholars, Joe Antos and James Capretta, both of the American Enterprise Institute, this week wrote an article warning against the “repeal and delay” strategy, saying it “carries too much risk of unnecessary disruption to the existing insurance arrangements upon which many people are now relying to finance their health services.”

They and other health experts have warned of insurers dropping out of the market, thereby reducing or eliminating completely people’s options for coverage if a repeal bill is passed without a replacement. 

Republican leaders on Wednesday sought to provide assurances that the transition period would go smoothly. The goal of their push, they say, is to provide Americans with “universal access” to healthcare coverage.

“It will be an orderly transition to something better ... using executive authority to ensure it’s an orderly transition," Pence told reporters. He did not provide details on what the executive actions would be.   

Democrats, meanwhile, signaled on Wednesday that they would focus on touting popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act — like a provision blocking insurers from denying someone with a pre-existing conditions — as they try to put Republicans on the defensive. 

They see the budget resolution the Senate is expected to pass next week as an opportunity to force Republicans to take votes on specific provisions in ObamaCare.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinGeorge H.W. Bush remembered at Kennedy Center Honors Democratic senator: US must maintain strategic relationship with Saudis and hold them accountable Trump confronts new Russia test with Ukraine crisis MORE (D-Md.) told reporters that Obama made a "strong point" during their meeting that parts of the ObamaCare are popular and Democrats had to be able to “get this message out.” 

While Senate Democrats are seeking to present a united front, it remains to be seen how well the conference will hold together. 

Ten Senate Democrats are up for reelection in 2018 in states carried by Trump. For them, defending ObamaCare could prove politically perilous.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Trump moves to ease Obama water rule | EPA document contradicts agency over water rule data| Manchin to be top Dem on Senate Energy panel Coal supporter Manchin named top Dem on Senate Energy Committee Schumer to Trump: Future infrastructure bill must combat climate change MORE (D-W.Va.), an increasingly influential red-state Democrat, skipped the Obama meeting, telling MSNBC that he couldn’t in “good conscience” attend a Democrat-only gathering.

Schumer pointed to Manchin’s interview as an example that pitching a personal appeal on the benefits of ObamaCare would resonate with voters in the “reddest” of states.

Democrats like Manchin, who has positioned himself as a potential ally for Trump and Republicans, are expected to face a mountain of pressure to buck their party on ObamaCare.

Both Schumer and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, are pushing back against suggestions that Democrats won’t be willing to ultimately work on a replacement. They stressed that the onus is on Republicans to come up with a plan.

"I know you press like to keep saying that, but no one has said that," Durbin told reporters when asked if Democrats would refuse to work on a replacement. "[But] this is a mean-spirited strategy to repeal ObamaCare with no replacement. It is inviting chaos."