Will Republicans Save Obamacare?

Some have begun to hope—or worry—that the disastrous rollout of health-care reform might prompt the GOP to take action to fix it.
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Republican Senator John Hoeven speaks as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin looks on. (Reuters)

The unrelenting disaster of the Obamacare rollout has invigorated Republicans in Congress. Suddenly, their years of warnings about the law's terrible effects seem vindicated; GOP lawmakers and commentators have turned into crusaders for the system's victims who are seeing their insurance policies canceled, having their premiums hiked, or just can't get through that darned healthcare.gov website.

The sudden outbreak of Republican concern about getting everybody insured has raised a tantalizing possibility: What if the party that has been Obamacare's most unremitting critic ended up getting carried away and saving it instead? Congressman Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, has proposed a bill aimed at letting people keep the insurance plans they had before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, something President Obama long promised would be the case that has turned out to be rather dramatically untrue. A Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu, has proposed a similar (but more mandatory) fix; conservatives have begun to worry that the merged bill might actually pass, work, and make Obamacare look like less than a failure (although health-reform experts are skeptical of both would-be fixes).

But reports of an outbreak of health-reform bipartisanship appear premature, to say the least. The joint appearance of a Republican and Democrat at Wednesday's Washington Ideas Forum, Senators John Hoeven of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was supposed to be a demonstration of bipartisan comity, but on health care, the pair ended up showing how unbridgeable the gulf between the parties remains.

Manchin, who frequently bucks his party, supports a GOP-backed delay in the individual mandate as well as Landrieu's bill. He said he believes in the goal of getting Americans insured and wants to be constructive in fixing the flawed legislation. "There are people who are just totally opposed to it and want to repeal it," he said. "I just think that we can do better as a nation than having people facing being one illness away from being bankrupt," or uninsurable because of a birth defect or other condition. Those goals ought to be universal, he said, but when some are focused only on getting rid of the law, "we can't even agree on the time of day."

Hoeven said he and Manchin have been good friends since their time as governors of their respective states. But when it came to health care, he sounded like one of those stubborn antagonists Manchin warned about.

"I think that, from the viewpoint of our side of the aisle, and I think most conservatives, this really is a law that doesn't work and does need to be repealed and replaced," he said, "because it takes you to government-run health care." Republicans believe that individuals should choose their own health care without being "funneled through government exchanges," he said. Instead, he proposed a series of piecemeal reforms, such as giving states more flexibility to implement Medicaid, beefing up state-based high-risk pools, and tort reform. Experts say such measures would not come close to creating universal health insurance.

So there you have it: A Republican and a Democrat who call themselves the best of friends, who are otherwise eager to cross party lines, part ways on whether the health reform law ought to be rescued or abandoned. If Hoeven and Manchin are any indication, a bipartisan agreement to rescue America from Obamacare is not in the works.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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