The debate over how to replace Obamacare, he said, should occur “before we vote on the repeal measure rather than after.”
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a veteran party strategist who is close to the GOP leadership, told me that a number of other “very solid, very thoughtful, very influential” members had raised similar concerns. But he said that with Republicans in the House enjoying a comfortable, 23-seat majority, he did not believe the wavering lawmakers would be enough to derail repeal. “The conference is so wedded to the repeal idea after six years of fighting this thing,” Cole said. “I think that train is leaving the station regardless.”
At the most senior levels, the debate over repeal is beginning to resemble the debate over passage six years ago: Leaders in both parties appear supremely confident that they have the public on their side. With a boost from Obama, Democrats said they were united against repeal and warned Republicans that they would bear the political blame if voters lost their insurance or faced higher costs and fewer protections and benefits as a result of repeal. The GOP, said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, “are like the dog that caught the bus.”
“They can’t keep all the things that the American people like about the ACA and get rid of the rest without throwing our entire healthcare system—not just those on ACA, but those on private insurance—into chaos,” he said. Democrats and outside advocacy groups have already begun targeting swing states and districts with ads and grassroots pressure, aimed at swinging the three Republican senators they’ll need to block repeal.
Schumer added a new twist on Wednesday: a Trump-style slogan. “The Republican plan to cut health care,” he said, “wouldn’t make America great again, it would make America sick again, and lead to chaos instead of affordable care.”
Despite the misgivings in their rank-and-file, leading Republicans were equally self-assured they could win the political battle by reminding the public that they were merely fixing a mess that Democrats created. The watchword from Ryan and his colleagues was “relief” from an onerous, costly law. “The American people want us to start over and repeal Obamacare,” Pence declared. As for the fallout, he said: “The simple fact is that the American people know who owns Obamacare. It is the first half of that title.” Polls have shown that while support for the law is split, most Americans oppose a full repeal.
If anyone in the top echelon of the Republican Party betrayed concern about the emerging strategy in Congress, it wasn’t the speaker, the vice president-elect, or the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Instead, it was Trump himself. In a series of morning tweets, the president-elect warned Republicans to “be careful” in aggressively scrapping a law that, he said, will “fall of its weight.”