Explaining the GOP Split Over Repealing Obamacare

Michael Catalini

The influential conservative website Red State does not score key-vote legislation.

But Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Helping Sick Americans Now Act nearly changed that. The bill would have insured thousands of Americans with pre-existing conditions who would be dropped because of a provision in the Affordable Care Act, Cantor argued. The bill was supposed to be a savvy way to make the GOP seem softer and score political points by tweaking Obamacare.

That is not, however, how many conservatives viewed the bill.

“Only a bunch of idiots in Washington, DC in the Republican Party could look at the rising animosity of the American people toward Obamacare and all its costs and burdens and say, ‘By God let’s fix it!’” Red State editor Erick Erickson wrote.

House conservatives panned the bill at their regular luncheon, Heritage Action’s communications director Dan Holler called the legislation “bad messaging,” and a squabble erupted online between Sen. Ted Cruz’s staffers and staffers who supported Cantor’s approach.

Leadership pulled the bill from its scheduled slot on the floor, at the same time exposing the intraparty political problem facing the GOP: Do conservatives double-down on the repeal-or-bust approach? Or do they accept the law for now but try to emasculate it wherever possible?

Opinion polls help shed light on the question. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, more Americans disapproved than approved of the health care law 46 percent to 41 percent, and a greater number say the law will hurt  (37 percent) rather than help (15 percent) them personally. That should make messaging simple, argue many conservatives. Repealing the law is a no-brainer.

“What conservatives in the party understand is that they cannot be positioned on Obamacare to say this has failed and it’s collapsing on itself later unless they’re making that case now. For a lot of those guys it’s full repeal,” said Holler.

Indeed, some Republicans at the Conversations with Conservatives event this week were open about their disdain for the Cantor approach to Obamacare.

"I don’t like seeing one big-government Democrat program replaced by a Republican big-government program," Rep. Trey Radel of Florida told The Washington Post.

From the point of view of freshman Republicans, the prospect of casting a health care vote that looked like shoring up ObamaCare was unpalatable. Though the House voted in the last Congress for repeal, the new class of freshmen hasn’t had its shot at opposing the law.

“This group of Republicans haven’t set their marker out yet on Obamacare,” Holler said. “A lot of members said the very first vote on Obamacare they wanted was to be on full repeal.”

It’s looking as if that will happen. Cantor is expected to bring his bill up again next month, and outside observers expect it to be paired with another attempt at repealing the health care law. That would validate the bloc of conservatives who favor repeal first and foremost.

It remains to be seen if the political calculus among conservatives will be validated in the 2014 midterm elections, and even then repeal won’t make it beyond the House. Still repealing the law was the cornerstone of the 2010 Republican renaissance and is a keystone of conservative orthodoxy. The episode in the House this week was just the latest reminder of the political currency that argument carries.