The Unprecedented, Contemptible GOP Quest to Sabotage Obamacare

What the Republicans are doing now goes beyond mere hardball politics -- and could hurt millions of Americans affected by health-care reform.
John Cornyn and John Thune, the Nos. 2 and 3 Republicans in the Senate. (Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)

When Mike Lee pledges to try to shut down the government unless President Obama knuckles under and defunds Obamacare entirely, it is not news -- it is par for the course for the take-no-prisoners extremist senator from Utah. When the Senate Republicans' No. 2 and No. 3 leaders, John Cornyn and John Thune, sign on to the blackmail plan, it is news -- of the most depressing variety.

I am not the only one who has written about House and Senate Republicans' monomaniacal focus on sabotaging the implementation of Obamacare -- Greg Sargent, Steve Benen, Jon Chait, Jon Bernstein, Ezra Klein, and many others have written powerful pieces. But it is now spinning out of control.

It is important to emphasize that this set of moves is simply unprecedented. The clear comparison is the Medicare prescription-drug plan. When it passed Congress in 2003, Democrats had many reasons to be furious. The initial partnership between President Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy had resulted in an admirably bipartisan bill -- it passed the Senate with 74 votes. Republicans then pulled a bait and switch, taking out all of the provisions that Kennedy had put in to bring along Senate Democrats, jamming the resulting bill through the House in a three-hour late-night vote marathon that blatantly violated House rules and included something close to outright bribery on the House floor, and then passing the bill through the Senate with just 54 votes -- while along the way excluding the duly elected conferees, Tom Daschle (the Democratic leader!) and Jay Rockefeller, from the conference-committee deliberations.

The implementation of that bill was a huge challenge, and had many rocky moments. It required educating millions of seniors, most not computer-literate, about the often complicated choices they had to create or change their prescription coverage. Imagine if Democrats had gone all out to block or disrupt the implementation -- using filibusters to deny funding, sending threatening letters to companies or outside interests who mobilized to educate Medicare recipients, putting on major campaigns to convince seniors that this was a plot to deny them Medicare, comparing it to the ill-fated Medicare reform plan that passed in 1989 and, after a revolt by seniors, was repealed the next year.

Almost certainly, Democrats could have tarnished one of George W. Bush's signature achievements, causing Republicans major heartburn in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections -- and in the process hurting millions of Medicare recipients and their families. Instead, Democrats worked with Republicans, and with Mark McClellan, the Bush Administration official in charge of implementation, to smooth out the process and make it work -- and it has been a smashing success.

Contrast that with Obamacare. For three years, Republicans in the Senate refused to confirm anybody to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the post that McClellan had held in 2003-04 -- in order to damage the possibility of a smooth rollout of the health reform plan. Guerrilla efforts to cut off funding, dozens of votes to repeal, abusive comments by leaders, attempts to discourage states from participating in Medicaid expansion or crafting exchanges, threatening letters to associations that might publicize the availability of insurance on exchanges, and now a new set of threats -- to have a government shutdown, or to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president agrees to stop all funding for implementation of the plan.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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