House Republican Rebranding Effort Suffers Major Setback

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)
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Amid opposition from conservative members and Democrats, House Republican leaders abruptly cancelled a vote on legislation Wednesday designed to simultaneously undermine a progressive piece of Obamacare and boost the party’s credibility with voters who support protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.

The legislation would have transferred $3.6 billion from the Affordable Care Act’s prevention and public health fund to a temporary, underfunded high-risk pool plan in the law to cover sick people with preexisting conditions for the rest of 2013, until Obamacare’s guarantee of insurance coverage for all people kicks in.

Republicans described it as an effort to help sick people where President Obama had failed.

The move is a significant blow to GOP leaders and their efforts to soften the party’s image. It reflects their inability to secure sufficient conservative buy-in for even modest legislation aimed at improving the Republican party’s brand, and suggests that their only real hope for moderating the GOP’s reputation is to buck the right and pass genuinely moderate and bipartisan legislation with Democratic support.

The legislation failed because it was neither a straight attack on the ACA, which likely could have passed with Republican votes alone, nor a genuine effort to improve it. It was a backdoor attempt to damage a permanent piece of Obamacare — which alienated the entire Democratic party — in order to temporarily bolster another part of the law, costing them conservative votes.

Earlier in the day, conservative GOP members spoke out against the measure, lamenting that it merely tinkers with the law when they wanted nothing less than repeal. Some said they opposed the high-risk pool portion of the law to begin with, despite its popularity among many Republicans and conservative health care wonks.

“Subsidizing health care is not what Republicans should be about,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) said at a Capitol Hill event organized by the Heritage Foundation.

Conservative groups were split on the legislation. While FreedomWorks and Grover Norquist’s Americans For Tax Reform supported it as an effort to undermine Obamacare, Heritage Action and Club For Growth urged lawmakers to vote against it.

The bill cleared a procedural vote in the afternoon and was all set for an up-or-down floor vote before House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) office announced its cancellation.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) top aide suggested they may try again another day.

“We’re going to continue to work the bill. We had positive conversations today and made good progress. We remain focused on stopping the biggest entitlement expansion in a generation,” Cantor’s deputy chief of staff Doug Heye told TPM in an email. “We intend to bring the bill back up when Congress returns in May.”

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