Are Republicans Giving Up Repealing Obamacare?

The GOP still hates the Affordable Care Act, but elected officials are increasingly focused on changing the law.
Nathan Chute/Reuters

This is the way the Obamacare war ends—not with a bang, but a whimper.

Senate Republicans are essentially passing on what was once supposed to be the Next Big Obamacare Fight—the confirmation of a new Health and Human Services secretary. Fourteen Republicans sided with Democrats on a procedural vote Wednesday, clearing the way for Sylvia Mathews Burwell to win confirmation quickly, easily, and with bipartisan support.

There are practical reasons not to pick a big fight over Burwell: She was already confirmed 96-0 for a different job, and she's well regarded as a skilled manager.

But her nomination was a pretty obvious hill on which Republicans could stage another battle in their years-long war against Obamacare. They chose not to. And after this, there simply aren't that many hills left on which to fight.

It's not just Burwell: Anti-Obamacare bills in the House have gotten tamer lately—some of them look an awful lot like fixing obvious problems with the law, something conservatives once swore they'd never do. There are fewer big-ticket hearings, and even those are often poorly attended. Anyone who's been around Capitol Hill and healthcare for the past four years can see it—the anti-Obamacare fire just isn't burning as hot as it used to.

"I think there's just a fatigue amongst elected Republicans on Obamacare," said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, in an interview conducted last month. "There seems to be this hesitancy to talk about Obamacare much."

In part, any fire dies down over five years. But the temperature on the right also got a lot lower after 8 million people signed up for coverage through the healthcare law's exchanges.

Heritage Action and some of its closest allies—Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz—tried to stoke the flames once Burwell's nomination passed (with bipartisan support) out of committee and came to the Senate floor. But they only went so far, demanding answers to a series of questions about the healthcare law.

"Until the President agrees to offer meaningful relief to the millions of people hurt by Obamacare, we should not confirm this nominee," Cruz said in a statement following Wednesday's procedural vote.

Even that, however, is significantly dialed back from Cruz's rhetoric ahead of last year's government shutdown, when he taunted his fellow Republicans by arguing that a vote to keep the government open was "a vote to fund Obamacare."

It wasn't—almost all of Obamacare's funding was separate from the bill Cruz blocked. But precisely because of the traits that make Burwell hard to oppose—her talent for management, and her appetite for policy—a vote for Burwell probably is a vote that will help the Obama administration more effectively implement the Affordable Care Act.

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Sam Baker is a health-care correspondent at National Journal.

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