Republicans in Congress have voted more than 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Glitches with last year's rollout ginned up the conservative base and helped revive some momentum, but if Republicans win the Senate on Tuesday, top leaders want voters to know that a full Obamacare repeal is not going to happen anytime soon.
"It is at the top of the list, but remember who is still in office for two more years," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during an appearance on Fox News Wednesday. "Obviously, he is not going to sign a full repeal."
Instead, McConnell says, he would be more inclined to hold a vote on more-incremental changes to the Affordable Care Act, such as repealing the medical-device tax or gutting the individual mandate, which is much more unlikely.
"I'd like to put Senate Democrats in the position of voting on the most unpopular parts of this law, and see if we can put it on the president's desk and make him take real ownership," McConnell said.
McConnell still says Obamacare is the "single worst piece of legislation in the last 50 years," but his tone is shifting as he attempts to adjust expectations of voters whom he and his Republican colleagues have made promises to over the years. Seeing a shot to finally gain full control of Congress, establishment Republicans are now in the uncomfortable position of pulling back the reins. Even if firebrand conservatives like Ted Cruz continue to promise that it's possible to repeal "every word of Obamacare," that doesn't mean it's true. At least, McConnell and others are saying, not yet.
The stark reality for the conservative base is that even if Republicans flip control of the Senate, they won't have the 60 votes they need to overcome procedural hurdles. Furthermore, President Obama will never sign off on a bill dismantling his signature law. And public polls show that even though Obamacare is still unpopular, most Americans no longer want to see a full repeal.
McConnell is not the only one bracing constituents for the legislative realities that lie ahead. Fellow Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming told WPBI radio Wednesday that a full repeal isn't even practical.
"I would imagine there would be a vote on repeal, but let's be realistic: Barack Obama is still going to be in the White House for another two years, and he is not going to sign that," Barrasso says. "I want to put things on his desk that he would actually give true consideration for signing because they are good for our economy, they will get people working again, and they will keep moving the country forward."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also told an audience this week that a full Obamacare repeal was not likely to be signed into law after the election. Although Paul's office says he still supports repeal, he admits the political reality is that it cannot be done with Obama in office.
The decision by establishment leaders to hold off on a repeal-focused agenda, however, isn't likely to sit well with the Senate's and House's most conservative members, who have built their legacies on obstructing Obama on the budget, on immigration, and especially on health care. McConnell's reluctance to spend the next two years embroiled in Obamacare repeal votes could lay the groundwork for the kind of intraparty fighting in the Senate that, up until now, has only been the trademark of the House. Eventually, the schisms between the Far Right and the center of the party could spill into public view.
Conflict may come quickly. Politico noted Wednesday that conservative members are meeting to lay out what they want their leadership to bring forward, and they're already rallying around a plan to get an Obamacare repeal vote early on to show where they stand.
For now, however, with an eye toward Election Day, McConnell is trying to reset expectations before the realities of the Senate and party infighting set in.