Out With The Old, In With The New: Meet The Dems Who Will Defend Obamacare

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What a difference eight years will make.

The frontline of Democrats defending Obamacare from a GOP repeal in the new year looks a whole lot different than the lineup of lawmakers who fought for its passage in 2009-10.

Gone are the likes of Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Harry Reid, and Henry Waxman.

With those stalwarts either deceased or retired, a new lineup has emerged that will be tasked with defending the law that their predecessors spent nearly their entire careers waiting to see enacted. But unlike their counterparts eight years ago, these Democrats will be playing defense and in the minority, with fewer legislative and political tools at their disposal.

“It’s mostly the bench who are now out front,” said John McDonough, a Harvard public health professor who wrote the 2011 book “Inside National Health Reform.”

“It’s a very experienced and well-rounded bench in terms of understanding and familiarity with these issues in a very, very deep way, but it is a whole new generation that will be rising up and taking leadership roles in this,” he said.

Of the key House leaders and committee chairs from the Obamacare wars of 2009 and 2010, only Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who as speaker of the House wrangled the votes to pass it, remains in a comparable role. The Democrats who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee at the time – George Miller (D-CA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), respectively – have both since retired, while the position of top Dem on the Ways and Means committee will have turned over twice by this January.

On the Senate side, where Republicans’ slim margin of control makes it the epicenter of the fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Finance Committee chair at the time of its passage, then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), has since left Congress. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the champion of health care reform for years, died before the ACA’s passage. The Democrat who replaced Kennedy in 2009 as chair of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has since retired.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will be taking over minority leadership from Harry Reid (D-NV), the top Democrat in the Senate since 2005 who retired this year.

But the Democrats who Senate aides and outside observers say will lead the charge against GOP efforts to destroy Obamacare are no strangers to health policy, or the hardball politics that surround it. They are Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) (pictured left), the ranking member of the Finance Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (pictured center), who leads the Democrats on HELP. Wyden and Murray were in the Senate when Obamacare passed and have faced off with Republicans over the role of government in health care since. Additionally, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) (pictured center), who was elected to the Senate in 2012, is also expected to play a public role in defending the law.

Given that Republicans are hellbent on repealing Obamacare and have the seats in the Senate to do it, Democrats face a daunting challenge in stopping them, under a President Trump, from dismantling President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. GOP congressional leaders have said it will be their first order of business when they come back to the new Congress next month, while signaling that they’ll use reconciliation, a procedural maneuver that requires only majority approval, to side step a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats are united in opposing the repeal measure, but the thornier territory comes after repeal, if chaos ensues in the insurance markets, as health policy experts are predicting, and Republicans pressure Democrats to help them replace it. Twenty-three Senate Democrats (plus two independents who caucus with Democrats) will be up for re-election in 2018 — 10 of them in states that voted for Trump this year. The GOP is hoping they’ll be able pick up votes for an eventual ACA alternative among those vulnerable Democrats, or at least, blame them if a replacement is never implemented.

“There’s likely to be some negotiations with individual Democrats for deals that would get them on board with some kind of Republican replacement,” McDonough said. “I have a hard time seeing that they’d be able to lure enough away to get to 60, but who knows.”

Beyond just shrinking from a majority into a minority after the 2014 elections, the shape of the Democratic caucus in the Senate has shifted since the passage of Obamacare. Wyden is considered more to the left than his predecessor on the Finance committee, the moderate Baucus, who led the Gang of Six negotiations that many believe slowed the momentum on what came to be the Affordable Care Act.

“The dynamics of the committee have changed a lot since the ’09 debate,” a Democrat committee aide told TPM last week. Some of the moderates on the committee, like former Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) who pulled discussions to the right have since departed. However, with a few purple-state Dems sitting on the committee, Democratic leaders will still need to seek an approach to defending the law that avoids alienating them.

More broadly, along with the departure of Conrad and Lincoln, has been the exodus of the handful of other more conservative Democrats who became crucial swing votes with an an incredible amount of leverage during the 2009-10 ACA debates. Former Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) have since retired or were defeated in re-elections for their seats.


Clockwise from top left: Former Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Ben Nelson (D-NE), and Evan Bayh (D-IN)

There are certainly other red and purple state Democrats who will feel the pressure of an Obamacare repeal fight differently than their colleagues who hail from safely blue territory. So far, however, they are taking the battle in stride.

“They can pressure all they want. What does pressure mean? That they’re going to repeal and they say ‘fix it?'” said Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who is up for re-election in 2018. “They’re going to have to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. My re-election has nothing to do with that.”

A progressive who has engaged in some fiery battles on the Finance Committee, Brown is also a Democrat expected to be vocal against the repeal efforts.

Murray, who took over as ranking member of HELP in 2015, has made women’s health a signature cause and was the face of Democrats’ opposition to GOP efforts to block federal funding to Planned Parenthood, which could be on the chopping block if Republicans follow the model of the ACA repeal legislation they pushed a year ago.

Murphy, meanwhile, has become a leader on mental health issues that have put him in the health policy circles more generally. While he wasn’t around for the passage of Obamacare, he’s had some practice pointing out the difficulties Republicans’ have had in settling on an ACA alternative. In 2014, a floor speech of his mocking GOP lawmakers’ inability to decide on a backup plan in case the Supreme Court gutted a major provision in the law went viral for his use in a sign of the shruggie emoticon.

“This is a pretty good summary of what the Republicans’ plan is to respond to King v. Burwell,” Murphy said then, of the meme.

Now, he is signaling a hard line against the idea that Democrats would help Republicans down the road if the GOP repeals Obamacare right away.

“Let’s be clear: Republicans are never, ever going to offer a replacement to the ACA. The repeal vote will be the first and last vote on this issue, no other vote is coming,” Murphy said in a statement to TPM. “Every Republican who votes for repeal will own the catastrophic rate hikes and massive increases in the number of uninsured that will result.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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