WASHINGTON ― Health care reform activists have grown dour as signs from Capitol Hill suggest increasing chances for the passage of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. Faced with a once seemingly far-fetched possibility, they have begun pinning their hopes on an external event that would effectively apply the brakes to the legislative process. Tuesday presents their best chance of that.
The special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is already one of the most hotly contested and absurdly expensive contests in congressional history. Now, those hoping to put off Obamacare’s demise are gearing up to use a potential win by the Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, as a means of spooking recalcitrant Republicans into inaction.
“It could at least give them pause that there will be a bigger backlash than they even thought and that they should rethink this huge bill,” is how one top health care reform advocate put it.
With Senate Republicans reportedly planning to vote on their health care bill as early as next week, opponents see few other options than to convince moderate Republicans to balk. Senate Democrats have planned various parliamentary and procedural maneuvers to slow down the legislative process. But, ultimately, there is little, if anything, they can do to stop a vote.
Already, operatives are planning a summer-long campaign to apply additional pressure on lawmakers who remain on the fence about the Republican-authored bill, which would dramatically scale back Medicaid coverage and introduce market-based reforms that could weaken protections for vulnerable health care consumers. But those efforts would come after the bill passes the Senate and goes to a conference committee with the House, which has already passed a version. By the time a bill gets to a conference committee, it has tremendous momentum toward final passage.
In general, these operatives have grown fearful that increasing noise about investigations into President Donald Trump’s potential obstruction of justice and campaign ties to Russia has consigned the issue of Obamacare to second billing. Impassioned congressional town hall events that marked consideration of the House bill in the spring are drawing notably less media coverage as reporters have grown consumed by Trump’s legal troubles.
An Ossoff victory could upend the narrative, injecting fresh political drama into an issue that Republican leadership has moved from the spotlight, and requiring those leaders to ponder whether they’re gambling their congressional majority by forcing their caucus to own a potential toxic health care overhaul.
“I think it will be very significant,” said longtime Democratic strategist Anita Dunn. “They are already being asked to vote for a highly unpopular bill that will adversely affect their own voters ― who thought that was a good idea anyway? … Tangible electoral defeat will mean at a minimum no Senate vote before July 4.”
But there is no guarantee that Ossoff will emerge victorious in the neck-and-neck suburban Atlanta race. (Democrats remain mixed about his prospects.) And even were he to win, it’s not entirely clear that Republicans would react by running away from their Obamacare overhaul.
In interviews with HuffPost, House aides and GOP strategists predicted that lawmakers might actually move in the opposite direction if Ossoff wins, arguing that it would be inaction ― not flirtation with a deeply unpopular health care bill ― that would doom Republican nominee Karen Handel.
“It should serve to clarify the minds of the conference that if they don’t start producing results, they are in trouble,” said John Feehery, a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
It should serve to clarify the minds of the conference that if they don’t start producing results, they are in trouble.
John Feehery, a top aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Feehery’s theory has historical precedent. Back in early 2010, Scott Brown’s surprise Senate win in the Massachusetts special election to replace Ted Kennedy nearly derailed Obamacare’s passage. Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel encouraged President Barack Obama at the time to downsize his legislative ambitions and turn his attention toward economic measures. But Obama and Democratic congressional leaders chose, instead, to redouble efforts, convincing just enough reluctant liberals in the House to stomach the Senate-authored bill.
Seven years later, House Republicans could face a similar dynamic: the loss of a symbolic seat (Georgia’s 6th District was previously held by Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Tom Price) and swallowing a legislative product that the Senate produced. Should it come to that, leadership will have to make a lobbying effort as concerted as Obama’s.
“This is the moment,” one well-connected GOP lobbyist said of the task facing Republican leaders should Ossoff win. “If they don’t all get on the same page, they will all hang separately.”
Aides insist that they’re ready to make that case, encouraging members to address health care head-on and make prodigious fundraising efforts in anticipation of a difficult election cycle.
But the climate could be even trickier than the one facing Democrats in 2010. Though Handel has said that health care hasn’t been a hotly debated topic ― Democratic advertising efforts have focused on other fronts ― it is clear that the Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill hangs over elections in Georgia and elsewhere. A recent poll from the Atlanta Journal Constitution showed that more than 80 percent of likely voters in the district said that the issue of health care was an “extremely important” or “very important.” That same poll found that just one in four respondents approve of the GOP plan.
One Democratic operative working on the Georgia race expressed shock that focus groups showed that people knew intricacies of the legislation and that the Congressional Budget Office analysis showed 24 million people losing coverage over the course of a decade because of it.
It’s not just the polling and the focus groups, either. One Democratic lawmaker said that the party was simultaneously befuddled and thrilled when Trump reportedly referred to the House health care bill as “mean.” That comment, more than a win in Georgia, could be used as a political cudgel against Republicans in 2018, the lawmaker said.
“The ads write themselves,” the Democrat said.
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