Surprise ObamaCare move puts GOP in bind

The Trump administration’s surprise call for the courts to strike down ObamaCare upended Capitol Hill on Tuesday, putting Republicans in a bind while giving Democrats new talking points on one of their favorite issues for the 2020 elections.

GOP lawmakers for the most part were reluctant to even talk about the Justice Department’s decision to call for all of ObamaCare to be struck down in a court filing.

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If the courts agree with the Justice Department, it would dramatically change the way health care is now delivered in the country. Insurance companies were among those criticizing the administration’s decision.

For the GOP, it shifted the political discussion from a more welcome storyline about the end of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE’s probe to health care — the issue Democrats believe helped them win back the House majority last fall.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTop Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Ocasio-Cortez on concentration camp remarks: Liz Cheney, GOP 'manipulating pain for political purposes' GOP rep: Trump needs to retaliate against Iran to deter other hostile nations MORE (R-Calif.) deflected a question about the ObamaCare case at his leadership press conference and told reporters to call his office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE’s (R-Ky.) office had no immediate comment.

Democratic presidential candidates, for their part, quickly denounced the move.

“In 2020, we need to elect a president who will make health care a right,” Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems McConnell vows to 'vigorously' oppose Moore's Senate bid Pelosi: Trump delay on Harriet Tubman is 'an insult to the hopes of millions' MORE (N.Y.) said the administration’s move ties an “anchor around the neck of every Republican for the next two years.”

Many Republican lawmakers declined to take a firm position on whether they support or oppose the Trump administration’s move, but their guarded responses illustrated the difficulty of the issue for them.

McCarthy’s spokesman issued a statement later on Tuesday that did not explicitly spell out his position on the legal case. It did call ObamaCare a “broken law” and said that Republicans have been clear that “Americans with pre-existing conditions will be protected.”

But if the entire law were struck down, it would eliminate protections in the law that forbid insurance companies from denying insurance to people with pre-existing conditions.

Republicans facing tough races in 2020 dodged on whether they supported the Trump administration’s move.

“I do believe that the White House is in discussions with the majority here in the House, the Democrat majority, on prescription drug prices and some other things to lower that cost curve, so that’s what I’m in favor of,” said Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerA true believer in diversity, inclusion GOP amps up efforts to recruit women candidates Republicans offer 'free market alternative' to paid family leave MORE (R-Mo.), whose district the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates as “lean Republican” for 2020.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocratic challenger leads Tillis by 1 point in North Carolina poll GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner MORE (R-N.C.), who is up for reelection next year, said “every time we say [repeal] we have to have a replace,” but also did not give a firm position on whether he supports or opposes the administration’s move.

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist, said that because most legal experts do not think the anti-ObamaCare lawsuit will ultimately succeed, the issue will eventually be moot. At the same time, he acknowledged the administration’s filing creates a positive story for Democrats.

“Internally in their mind they’re breathing a sigh of relief,” O’Connell said of Democrats who can now talk about health care instead of Mueller’s findings.

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Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns Stephen King: 'It's time for Susan Collins to go' MORE (Maine) was the rare Republican to directly say she was opposed to the administration’s move, calling it “very disappointing” and noting that the Department of Justice is supposed to defend “duly enacted laws, which the Affordable Care Act certainly was.”

The timing of the administration’s move seemed like incredible fortune for Democrats, many of whom were deflated by the Mueller news.

“At a time when all this Russia news came out and it’s not what voters are interested in, leave it to the Trump administration to turn it back to health care, which is why we’re in the majority,” said Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersHillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality House Democrats seek bipartisan working group on net neutrality Pro-business Dem group sees boost in fundraising MORE (D-Calif.).

Trump, during a private lunch at the Capitol on Tuesday with Senate Republicans, called for revisiting ObamaCare and coming up with something better, lawmakers said.

He did not offer details, other than saying that “whatever it is” should protect people with pre-existing conditions, Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up MORE (R-S.D.) said while leaving the lunch.

With Democrats in control of the House, however, the chances of Congress agreeing on bipartisan ObamaCare legislation are essentially zero.

“He just mentioned in passing that there was litigation moving through the courts, but litigation takes a while and he wanted to see us revisit the subject,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.).

A lower court judge invalidated ObamaCare in December in response to the lawsuit, brought by 20 GOP-led states.

But that judge is known as a staunch conservative, and legal experts in both parties predict that the lawsuit will not ultimately succeed, either at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case currently is, or at the Supreme Court.

The challengers argue that because Congress in 2017 repealed the financial penalty in the mandate for having coverage, the mandate can no longer be upheld as constitutional under Congress’s taxing power. They say that because the mandate should fall, the entire rest of the law should also be struck down.

Most legal experts say precedent shows that even if the mandate falls, there is no reason for courts to strike down the rest of the law, since Congress purposefully left the rest of ObamaCare in place while repealing the mandate penalty in the 2017 tax law.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (R-Texas) did not give a position on the case. “I support having the courts make the decision,” he said.

But he noted that the issue of health care is not going away.

“I expect we’ll continue to have a conversation about health care into the indefinite future,” he said.