Why Republicans Are Voting to Repeal Obamacare—Again

The GOP tried to scrap the health law dozens of times already, but its newest members have not.

From left: J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Gene J. Puskar/AP

As if begging for a Groundhog Day joke, House Republicans will vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act again on Tuesday. It'll be the 56th shot they've taken at the law, and just like every other time they've tried to erase President Obama's signature achievement, this attempt is doomed to fail. Republicans have nowhere near the veto-proof majority they'd need to kill Obamacare.

GOP leaders know it, too. They've stopped promising to repeal the law, and Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have taken the extra step of swearing up and down that they won't shut down the government over it again, either.

So why waste everyone's time with another futile repeal vote? The simple answer, as Boehner himself told Fox News's Bret Baier last week, is they're doing it for the freshmen—that is, the 47 House Republicans who just took office a month ago and have never had the high honor and privilege of voting to repeal Obamacare. By holding the vote, these lawmakers can head back to their districts and tell their constituents that yes, they did everything they could to get rid of the reviled law. "We're just getting it out of the way," one Republican aide told the Washington Examiner, reflecting a sentiment probably shared by a party leadership that has seen this game play out several times already.

A more pressing issue for Republicans is whether, at long last, they can coalesce around an Obamacare replacement bill that they've promised for years but have never delivered. Around this time in 2014, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor made an explicit pledge to conservatives that the House would vote on a GOP healthcare plan by the end of the year. He lost his primary three months later, and that promise was more or less forgotten. Now, the Republican leadership has assigned three committee chairmen, including 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, with the dual task of writing an Obamacare alternative and forming a contingency plan in case the Supreme Court votes this spring to wipe out insurance subsidies for people who signed up for coverage under the federal exchange. Republicans are praying for such a ruling, but they know they'd face immediate pressure from Democrats to help out several millions Americans who would suddenly be unable to afford their health insurance.

Both challenges could be impossible to overcome, for reasons Philip Klein ably explains at the Examiner. The GOP's lock-step unity in opposing Obamacare over the last four years obscures the party's stark divisions when it comes to healthcare policy. Individual Republicans have unveiled a number of serious proposals for replacing the Affordable Care Act, but the party has simply been unable to agree on key issues: How much should their plan expand coverage? How should they treat employer-based health insurance? Should they keep any of the more popular elements of Obamacare, like the ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions? And as the Supreme Court ruling could demonstrate, the fact that the 2010 law is now fully implemented makes it that much more difficult to scrap it entirely.

As complicated as it is, don't expect any Obamacare replacement bill to come out for several months, if that. As Molly Ball noted last week, the new Republican majority isn't exactly off to a fast start. In the meantime, House leaders have to give their members something to do, and like the Keystone bill last month, repealing the health law is a piece of low-hanging fruit. It may not go much further than the GOP's last four dozen attempts, but it'll give the newbies something to brag about back home, and the leadership can get it out of the way.