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GOP strategy on killing Obamacare: Divide and conquer

By BILL SCHNEIDER
November 19, 2013

House Speaker John Boehner (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

House Speaker John Boehner (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

“Remember the strategy for stopping Obamacare we laid out to you back in July,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh.) told the House Republican conference last week. “Targeted legislative strikes aimed at shattering the legislative coalition the president has used to force his law on the nation.”

Thirty-nine House Democrats – one in five — voted for the measure. Democratic leaders breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Earlier last week, they feared that 100 or more anxious Democrats might defect. President Barack Obama’s “fix” for the Affordable Care Act, announced on Thursday, held back what might have been a tidal wave of defections.

Republicans want the old Democratic Party back.

That was the deeply divided party that fought over everything — wars, civil rights, spending, taxes. What happened during Obama’s first two years was something of a miracle. The Democratic Party held its majority together. They governed. We experienced something that is routine in a parliamentary system but rare in the United States — party government.

Democrats held similar majorities in Congress during President Bill Clinton’s first two years, 1993-94. Back then, however, the party could not hold together to pass healthcare reform.

By the time Obama took office 15 years later, however, everything had changed. In 2010, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act on a strictly partisan vote. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for it.

Republicans are determined to kill it. They can’t do that as long as Obama is in the White House. So their new strategy is to make the law unworkable.

That was what the House vote was all about on Friday. Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called it “another vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act” — something House Republicans have already voted to do 46 times.

What held Democrats together in 2010 — unlike 1994 — was indignation. The Tea Party had taken control of the GOP and driven it to extremes. The last straw came in September 2009, when Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” at the president while he was addressing a joint session of Congress.

In politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In 2010, Republican contempt produced Democratic solidarity.

If Democrats are becoming the nation’s new majority party — as last year’s election suggested they are — Republicans want them to be a divided and ineffective majority.

Last week, Republicans managed to peel off more than three dozen House Democrats. What split them off was terror. Most of those Democrats represent congressional districts where Republicans pose a real threat in next year’s midterm. They are terrified that they will have to defend Obama’s pledge that Americans who like their insurance policies will be able to keep them.

If the House bill isn’t going anywhere, where’s the threat to Obamacare coming from? From the one defection that matters: Obama himself. He, too, is threatened. Not by Republicans — Obama never has to face the voters again — but by the prospect of congressional Democrats abandoning him. That’s why he had to reverse course and offer the “fix.” It’s supposed to give Democrats political cover.

Congressional Democrats don’t seem especially happy with the president’s fix. They are trying to put together their own legislative remedy. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is proposing a bill that would allow people to keep their old health insurance plans — not for one year as Obama has proposed, but indefinitely. Several other Democratic senators have signed on, including some, like Landrieu, who face difficult re-election prospects next year.

The threat to Obamacare is clear. Allowing people to keep cut-rate, shoddy policies that do not meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act will create two separate risk pools. A lot of young, healthy Americans will stay with their old, cheap policies, while older and sicker people, desperate for coverage, will enroll in Obamacare.

That will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket next year. “Cancellation today, sticker shock tomorrow,” Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chief sponsor of the House Republican bill, predicted.

Obama is trying to limit the risk by allowing people to keep their old policies for one more year. The president’s expectation is that the old plans will simply die out and everyone will end up in Obamacare. But the old plans won’t die if people are allowed to keep them or if companies are allowed to keep selling them.

Angry liberals see what’s going on — and are furious. They are furious with the president for going wobbly. And with Republicans for trying to kill Obamacare piece by piece.

Liberals “don’t want to see this law eviscerated by death by a thousand cuts,” the executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action told Politico. “The answer is not to undo Obamacare or to undo major provisions of it like allowing those junk plans to continue.”

But that is precisely the game plan Boehner described to his party. So far, everything is going according to plan.

Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.

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