Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks, underscoring GOP shift

Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks, underscoring GOP shift

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJim Carrey fires back at 'Joe McCarthy wanna-be' Cruz Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech MORE (R-Texas) pledged to protect people with pre-existing conditions at a debate Tuesday night, illustrating just how dramatically Republicans have changed their stance on the issue.

Cruz is perhaps most well known for tenaciously opposing ObamaCare at every turn. But now, facing a surprisingly tough reelection race against Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), he is speaking up in favor of one of ObamaCare’s core provisions: protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

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When O’Rourke said during Tuesday’s debate that Cruz “vows to repeal protections for pre-existing conditions,” Cruz interjected by saying, “Not true.” Cruz later said in his closing statement that he will “protect pre-existing conditions.”

The remarks signify a major shift for Cruz, who previously called for repealing "every word" of ObamaCare, including the law’s protections against people with pre-existing conditions getting denied coverage or being charged higher premiums because of their condition.

His comments this week also underscore how Republicans in tough races, from Cruz to incumbents in other states and districts, realize they are vulnerable on the issue.

Democrats dismissed Cruz’s recent pledge by pointing to his record and saying he is simply lying about his support for pre-existing condition protections. Experts, meanwhile, noted the significance of his embrace for a key aspect of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.

“Ted Cruz's national aspirations were built on him being the Darth Vader of ObamaCare, so this is a major shift in position,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Rottinghaus said it could be hard for voters to believe that Cruz all of a sudden wants to maintain pre-existing condition protections, but he said Cruz is responding to a shifting political landscape where Democrats now sense they have the advantage on the issue and are hammering Republicans across the country for their previous votes to repeal the protections.

“It stretches credibility to say that now he wants to shift gears and cover pre-existing conditions,” Rottinghaus said. “It’s obvious that this is a shift [due] to the dramatic change in opinion on this issue in the past couple years.”

Health-care legislation introduced by Cruz in 2015, called the Health Care Choice Act, would have repealed Title I of ObamaCare, the section of the 2010 law that includes its pre-existing condition protections. The bill’s main replacement proposal would instead allow insurance to be sold across state lines.

Two years earlier he led an effort to defund ObamaCare that resulted in a 17-day government shutdown, including a famous all-night speech on the Senate floor against the law that lasted more than 21 continuous hours.

At Tuesday’s debate, Cruz did not say whether he wants to keep the pre-existing conditions protections in ObamaCare or if he has an alternative proposal.

His campaign did not respond to a request for more details on his position on pre-existing conditions.

Cruz isn’t the only GOP candidate this year pledging support for protecting pre-existing conditions. Republicans across the country are scrambling to now say they back those protections.

But Cruz especially stands out because of the lengths he has gone to try to roll back those protections. During the repeal debate last year in the Senate, Cruz fought to include a provision that became known as the Cruz Amendment, which would allow insurers to sell plans that could discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions as long as insurers also sold separate plans that offered the protections.

Cruz fought for that amendment despite concerns from some GOP colleagues. Health-care experts warned at the time that his proposal would split the market and raise premiums for sick people who remained in the ObamaCare-compliant plans.

Democrats are forcefully pushing back on Cruz following Tuesday’s remarks.

“Cruz mentioned pre-existing conditions but he has AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN tried to rollback protections for those with pre-existing conditions,” O’Rourke tweeted.

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson tweeted: “Lying Ted. He literally shut down [government] in his crusade to repeal these protections for [people] with preexisting conditions.”

Cruz is not the only avid ObamaCare foe getting caught up in the debate over pre-existing conditions.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) spent much of last year pushing to repeal ObamaCare’s provision that prevents insurers from raising premiums for people with pre-existing conditions. He and other members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus opposed the initial GOP ObamaCare repeal-and-replacement bill last year in part because it left that protection in place.

Brat, who’s also in a tough reelection race, is now accusing his Democratic opponent Abigail Spanberger of lying when she says he is part of an “assault on pre-existing conditions.”

Brat’s campaign spokesperson did not respond when asked whether Brat still wants to repeal ObamaCare’s protection that prevents people with pre-existing conditions from being charged higher premiums.

Asked about Cruz’s stance, Larry Levitt, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it’s difficult to tell whether Republicans are proposing to keep the full range of ObamaCare protections for pre-existing conditions.

“We’re clearly seeing a shift in rhetoric on pre-existing conditions by Republican candidates, but it remains to be seen whether that reflects a true shift in policy positions,” Levitt said. “The policy details matter a lot in whether people with pre-existing conditions are really protected, so it’s hard to judge based on campaign talking points.”