GOP distances itself from Trump's ObamaCare attacks

Congressional Republicans don't want to talk about attacks on ObamaCare. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE isn't making that easy.

The Trump administration on Wednesday filed its official legal argument calling for the entirety of the Affordable Care Act to be struck down, once again thrusting the issue back in the spotlight at a time when GOP lawmakers are trying to turn the page.

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Republicans would much rather focus on criticizing the “Medicare for All” proposal backed by more and more Democrats, something they see as a winning line of attack compared to reigniting an ObamaCare debate that contributed to the GOP losing its majority in the House last year.

Trump, though, is not playing along with that strategy; instead, he is keeping up his attacks on ObamaCare in court and in his speeches.

Asked if he wished the Trump administration were not arguing so forcefully against the 2010 health care law in court, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, separated congressional Republicans from the White House.

“They're going to do what they're going to do,” Thune said. “What we have to worry about is what our members are working on, what we're trying to do and how we're communicating that to the American people.”

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyCongress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits US, Mexico set for new post-NAFTA trade era Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls MORE (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, declined to say he supported the administration’s move.

“The president can message whatever he wants to message, and there's no control I have over what he can message,” Grassley said. 

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And Republicans have been beating the drum almost daily to get across their main health care message: that Medicare for All would take away people’s private health insurance and come with an enormous price tag. 

Republicans this week seized on a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office examining projected costs associated with Medicare for All. While the report did not put a specific price tag on the proposal, it said government spending on health care would "increase substantially."

Previous studies have put the cost to the government around $32 trillion over 10 years.

But one side effect of the GOP’s attacks on Medicare for All is that it comes close to defending the status quo, which includes ObamaCare.

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeCheney clashes with Trump Tom Cole wins GOP House primary in Oklahoma On The Trail: Crisis response puts Trump on defense, even in red states MORE (R-Okla.) asked at a hearing this week on Medicare for All why lawmakers don’t just focus on bipartisan fixes to ObamaCare instead of pursuing the sweeping new system that’s championed by progressives like 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Unhappy voters could deliver political shocks beyond Trump Democratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed plane Neil Young opposes use of his music at Trump Mount Rushmore event: 'I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux' MORE (I-Vt.).

“We have a chance, I think, to make some fixes that we probably all agree on,” Cole said.

Over the past few months, though, GOP lawmakers had been mostly silent on ObamaCare, a law they aggressively attacked for eight years.

The Affordable Care Act’s popularity has been rising in recent years, with a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April finding that 50 percent of adults have a favorable view of the law, compared to 38 percent with an unfavorable one.

Most Democrats last year campaigned on maintaining the law’s popular protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

“The last thing Senate Republicans want to be doing is participating in an exercise that would potentially remove coverage from people with pre-existing conditions that they already have,” said a Senate GOP strategist. “Candidates in tough races will be emphasizing how to improve on what currently exists.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.) last month said the GOP health care message is “preserving what works and fixing what doesn't,” a very different slogan than the party’s long-time mantra of “repeal and replace.”

Trump, though, is on the attack against ObamaCare. In a speech last week, he touted the 2017 repeal of the law’s mandate to have coverage before adding, “Now we’re going for the rest.”

His administration is also supporting the lawsuit brought by a coalition of GOP-led states calling for overturning the law. That case, which legal experts in both parties dismiss as unlikely to succeed, is now making its way through the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Vulnerable Republican lawmakers are not eager to talk about the administration’s efforts on that front.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks MORE (R-Colo.), perhaps the most vulnerable GOP senator up for reelection next year, said Thursday that he had not seen the administration’s legal filing, declining to comment on it and on his views on the lawsuit. His office did not respond to a follow-up inquiry.

Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoDemocrats release bilingual ads on police reform bill Lawmakers introduce legislation to establish national cybersecurity director Progressives riding high as votes tabulated in NY, Kentucky MORE (R-N.Y.), a moderate who is facing a potentially competitive race next year, distanced himself from the lawsuit.

“I don't agree with anything being taken out without a replacement ready,” he said.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell makes strong call for masks, saying there should be no stigma Ernst sinks vote on Trump EPA nominee MORE (R-W.Va.) noted the failure of the GOP’s repeal attempt in 2017.

“Obviously the repeal-and-replace discussion wasn't successful, so let's put that behind us and let's make this one work,” she said.

Thune, though, suggested that if Republicans were in control of both chambers again, they would likely attempt another repeal-and-replace measure.

“Obviously, if and when we have the votes, we'd like to take a different direction, one that would create more competition and more choices and lower costs,” Thune said.