If the conservative voters who handed the GOP the Senate had an Obamacare repeal on their one-year wish list, they’re likely to be disappointed come this fall.
Republicans’ promises that Obamacare would be on the chopping block as soon the GOP took control of the Senate are unlikely to be met by years’ end. After years of heated rhetoric, over-the-top campaign ads and even Supreme Court challenges, the repeal Obamacare movement continues to be a can kicked farther down the road. GOP congressional leaders are facing the political reality that the party lacks a concrete alternative to Obamacare, the votes to repeal it and, in the immediate future, a crowded calendar of extremely pressing other issues.
Now, GOP lawmakers are trying to figure out how to let down easily the base they primed for repeal across three election cycles, with some leaders lowering expectations for repeal maneuvers in the months to come and other Republicans weighing efforts to tweak the law instead.
As the GOP showed very publicly earlier this year when it failed to come up with a back-up plan if the Supreme Court gutted Obamacare, even coalescing members around the most basic approach to replacing Obamacare proves tricky.
If an alternative did exist, Republicans don’t have a big enough majority in the Senate to repeal the current law, hence the latest push towards using the process known as budget reconciliation, which would allow them to avoid a Democratic filibuster and require only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass.
That approach brings along its own procedural shortcomings.
“You might be able to poke some holes in Obamacare regulations but you can’t repeal the whole thing,” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and executive vice president at Qorvis MSL Group.
Lawmakers also can’t use reconciliation in a way that would add to the budget deficit and repealing Obamacare would cost millions.
Republicans’ greatest enemy in the short term, however, is time. Already on lawmakers’ plates before the end of the year is a series of deadlines that are poised to turn into their own major messes.
“They have a really limited amount of time and a huge agenda,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Lawmakers are set to debate the Iran deal, a possible government shutdown and raising the debt ceilings, among other issues, as well as interruptions caused by two Jewish holidays and Pope Francis’ visit.
“A substantial effort taking on Obamacare doesn’t fit well with all that,” Ornstein said,
In this environment, Republicans are back to doing the delicate dance of acknowledging these limitations without spurning the base, particularly as the 2016 presidential race pushes the repeal promises back to the forefront.
When asked for more specifics on how Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would use reconciliation, a spokeswoman emailed TPM, “The Leader hasn’t made any scheduling or content announcements.”
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD), the GOP’s No. 3, suggested the effort would have to wait until next year.
“I think if we use reconciliation for Obamacare, I don’t know if there’s any particular rush to doing it. You know that’s an issue that’s going to be around for a while,” he told Roll Call.
As perhaps another sign they’re not counting on a full repeal, Senate GOP leadership has also begun to float taking on smaller-scale efforts to augment certain unpopular provisions in the law that could gain traction on both sides of the aisle. But even that’s a risky move. Any measures that appear to bolster the law could be met with disdain by the hard right, as was this case when lawmakers tussled over fallback plans ahead of the Supreme Court’s latest Obamacare decision, which ultimately upheld the law.
“In some sense, Republican critics of the law don’t want to fix unpopular pieces because those may provide momentum for full repeal,” said Larry Levitt, vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Republicans don’t want to provide a safety valve that would take off some of the pressure of a full repeal.”