Have Repeal Efforts Always Been a Republican Ruse?

For leading Republicans today, the answer is almost certainly yes.  As evidence, allow me to take you back to the fall of 2013.

The House GOP, the chamber majority since 2010, had a choice in deciding the fate of the Continuing Appropriations Resolution for the fiscal year of 2014.  They could have simply increased the spending limit and continued funding the government, including Obamacare.  However, this strategy presented a problem in terms of political optics.  Republicans saw their huge victory in the House in 2010 due to popular opposition to Obamacare -- there can be no legitimate argument about that, and Republicans knew it well.  They had to offer at least the perception that they were on the Hill to fight Obamacare tooth and nail.  So, what could Republicans do to shield Americans from all of Obamacare’s detrimental machinations, from which Congress had so carefully exempted itself in that year?

Here’s how it played out in 2013.  House Republicans first thought to issue two separate bills, one funding the government, and a separate bill to defund Obamacare.  This was the path of GOP “compromise,” we were assured.  However, it was also little more than preemptive capitulation.  The Senate, then with a Democratic majority, could simply pass the bill funding government in its entirety, and ignore the bill to defund Obamacare, as would have been Harry Reid’s prerogative at the time.

Some conservative House members devised a different approach.  What if a single bill was crafted which both provided a stopgap allowance to continue funding the government with the exception of Obamacare?

House Speaker John Boehner interestingly opted  for the latter, saying that Obamacare was “a train wreck.  It’s time to start protecting families from this unworkable law.” 

So the House bill passed, and it went to the Senate.  Ted Cruz famously spoke for over 20 hours to protest the Senate Democrats’ insistence upon passing a “clean bill” which continued funding Obamacare.  Cruz had his allies, including Jeff Sessions, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and David Vitter.  However, turncoat Republican Senators John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell undermined Cruz’s efforts by rallying Republicans against him.  Knowing that the Senate wouldn’t have the 60 votes to pass a “clean bill,” Cornyn and McConnell pushed for, and voted for, a cloture vote to allow a gutting of the House bill with 51 votes.  They then voted against funding Obamacare, but only after it had become a meaningless show vote.

All this opposition to funding Obamacare led to the latest of 17 government shutdowns in American history.  Despite all the bluster about how it would prove harmful to Republicans, 2014 was another landslide victory for them – giving them the largest majority in Congress and state legislatures since 1928.

Forward to 2015.  Now in command of the House and Senate, Republicans spearheaded and passed a bill to repeal Obamacare.  Naturally, Obama vetoed the bill in January of 2016, and Republicans did not have the votes to override the veto.

Later that year, Democrats lost the presidency to candidate Donald Trump, who vocally railed against Obamacare.

The American people, after nearly seven long years of struggle which led to a complete reversal in the balance of power at the federal level, had created the circumstances necessary to eliminate the ever-unpopular Obamacare once and for all, relegating it the annals of immediate history as a failed socialist experiment.  Republicans had, after all, proven that they’re driven to repeal Obamacare at all costs, hadn’t they?

But once in power, Republicans didn’t try to repeal Obamacare at all.  They tried to “reform” Obamacare.  That’s how Daniel Henninger at The Wall Street Journal characterizes the recent efforts of Congress, and it’s apt.  He calls it Republicans’ “Obamacare reform failure.”

It’s interesting that I’ve never really thought of it in those terms, which is, I suppose, a testament to the power of media and our political narrative which insists that recent Republican efforts on the Hill have anything at all to do with “repeal.”  But it has become very clear that Republicans’ outward desire to “repeal” Obamacare had become Republicans’ outward desire to “reform” Obamacare once they had attained the power to repeal it outright.  That is what “repeal and replace” means.  It may sound better to the Republican faithful to “repeal and replace” rather than “reforming” the big-government, liberty-strangling monstrosity that is Obamacare, but there is little difference when you’re trading one federal law regulating our healthcare system for another that features an awful lot of the same regulatory strictures on private industry, rather than eliminating the federal regulations which Obamacare introduced altogether.

Now, in the wake of this failure to reform Obamacare, what have we learned? 

Henninger writes that, though Republicans had become “self-identifiably conservative” in recent years, we’ve just learned that they’re “not as conservative as they think they are.”

Personally, I don’t believe that Republicans, particularly of the Washington establishment ilk, ever thought of themselves as conservatives.  Likelier, they knowingly feigned conservative positions in order to get elected.  And they could wear the conservative mask easily when it came to Obamacare, because none of their efforts in the past could ever actually yield the result of repealing it.

When Boehner championed defunding Obamacare in 2013, he knew it would never effect an end to Obamacare.  It was a way to express conservative bona fides on the cheap, pandering to the conservative base, leaving now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who’s leading the effort to “repeal” Obamacare in the Senate) to do the dirty work of quietly sabotaging the effort.  Similarly, in 2015, Republicans in Congress knew that Obama would veto their bill to repeal, and that they wouldn’t have the votes to override the veto. 

Maybe, just maybe, all of that was nothing more than a show, meant to get you excited and to get them elected?

After all, if it were not, what would be keeping them from sending that same repeal bill from 2015 to President Trump’s desk with the actual prospect of repeal, knowing that he would sign it?

Republicans can still win this.  They can win this because, against all odds, the American people have put the pieces in place necessary to repeal Obamacare outright.  Those Republicans who vote against a pure repeal will be cast out as quickly as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who spectacularly lost the Republican primary as a result of his pro-amnesty position in 2014.

And Republicans need to win this, because if they do not, Republicans will own whatever now comes of Obamacare.  They will own it because now they have the ability to repeal it, but are refusing to do so in hopes of “reforming” it. 

Future legislation, including much needed tax reform, hinges on this. The legacy of Trump and this Republican Congress hinges on this.  All they need to do is pass a simple bill to repeal Obamacare, as Republicans promised the American people.  Healthcare reform - hopefully free-market reform - can follow thereafter.

William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.

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