Just a couple months ago, the pair of hearings that congressional Republicans held this week on Obamacare would have gone very differently.
The GOP was at the top of its oversight game back then, leaving administration officials flustered. But this week, the party appeared powerless to conjure the bad Obamacare headlines it has been seeking.
The two hearings showed two sides of the Republican dilemma on Obamacare. And both contributed to the growing sense that the politics of the health care law are shifting after the law cemented itself by reaching 8 million enrollees last month.
First, House Republicans continued an increasingly desperate search for evidence that recent Obamacare news hasn’t been as positive as the White House has said. At that hearing, the Republicans were stumped by their own witnesses, who had mostly positive things to say about recent developments or refused to speculate about possible future shortcomings.
Then a day later, Senate Republicans seemed to make the tactical decision that hitting hard on the law wasn’t the right strategy while reviewing the person nominated to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the lightning rod for many of the law’s controversies.
Both incidents marked seismic shifts from the days of HealthCare.gov’s disastrous launch, when Republicans readily grilled Sebelius and other officials over the law, taking as many shots as they could while Obamacare’s future was uncertain.
The first Senate confirmation hearing Thursday for Sylvia Mathews Burwell, tapped to succeed Sebelius, would have seemed a natural opportunity for the Republican members to flex their opposition to the law. And while many of the usual talking points made appearances — canceled health plans, lost jobs and HealthCare.gov’s miserable launch — the tone itself was strikingly cordial.
Only ranking member Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) actually interrupted Burwell in an effort to pin her down on an answer to a question about the administration’s “keep your health plan” fix, while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made a guest appearance to introduce and endorse her to the committee.
“Regardless of my objections to the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services needs competent leadership,” McCain said.
A few GOP members, like Sens. Johnny Isakson (GA) and Richard Burr (NC), ignored Obamacare altogether. Isakson focused his questioning on a port project that he wants approved, while Burr inquired about public health preparedness. Burr then gave Burwell his full-throated support.
“I support her nomination and I will vote for it. She doesn’t come with a single experience that would make her a good secretary. She comes with a portfolio of experience,” Burr said. “I look forward to her confirmation being quick.”
That notably tame Senate hearing followed a House hearing the day earlier during which House Republicans became visibly agitated when the insurance executives they called to testify refused to deliver the bad news that they were hunting for.
It was easy to see coming. At least one industry source had already dismissed the Republican report that served as the basis for the meeting as “incredibly rigged,” and the testimony prepared by the hearing’s witnesses thoroughly debunked the GOP’s findings.
So committee members at the hearing went fishing for other bad headlines instead — perhaps the prospect of significant premium increases in 2015. “I can’t say for certain,” one of the witnesses said of next year’s rates. “I don’t have the exact numbers yet,” another offered.
Things got so bad that, at one point, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) effectively chastised industry executives for not producing any information on the 2015 rates, which Republicans have warned could skyrocket.
“You have done no internal analysis on what the trend line is for these premiums? None?” Blackburn said, clearly exasperated. “It is baffling that we could have some of our nation’s largest insurers, and you all don’t have any internal analysis of what these rates are going to be.”
It was that kind of week for the GOP.