WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Republicans are increasingly worried that GOP candidates this fall might be burned by a fire that's roaring through the conservative base: demand for the repeal of President Barack Obama's new health care law.
It's fine to criticize the health law and the way Democrats pushed it through Congress without a single GOP vote, these party leaders say. But focusing on its outright repeal carries two big risks.
Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade. More important, say strategists from both parties, a fiercely repeal-the-bill stance might prove far less popular in a general election than in a conservative-dominated GOP primary, especially in states such as Illinois and California.
Democrats are counting on that scenario. They say more Americans will learn of the new law's benefits over time and anger over its messy legislative pedigree will fade. For months, Democrats have eagerly catalogued Republican congressional candidates who pledge to repeal the health care law, vowing to make them pay in November.
Republican leaders are stepping cautiously, wary of angering staunchly conservative voters bent on repealing the new law. In recent public comments, they have quietly played down the notion of repealing the law while emphasizing claims that it will hurt jobs, the economy and the deficit.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the committee responsible for electing GOP senators this fall, said in an interview, “The focus really should be on the misplaced priorities of the administration” and Congress' Democratic leaders.
“The No. 1 concern of the public is jobs and people losing their homes,” he said. “The administration has been obsessing on this health care bill.”
Asked if he advises Republican Senate candidates to call for repealing the law, Cornyn said: “Candidates are going to test the winds in their own states. … In some places, the health care bill is more popular than others.”
On Tuesday, Cornyn issued a 1,280-word campaign memo that mentioned “repeal” only once. It did not advocate repeal but noted that in a recent poll, “46 percent of respondents support a full repeal” of the health law.
Three weeks ago, Cornyn told reporters he thought GOP Senate candidates would and should run on a platform of repealing the legislation.
Cornyn and others increasingly are focused on several corporations' claims that a provision of the new law that cancels a tax benefit will hurt profits and hiring. This approach places a greater premium on pivoting to the economy instead of dwelling on the legalistic process of trying to repeal the complex law.
“The health care debate provides a natural segue into talking about the economy and jobs,” said Nicklaus Simpson, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference, a policy group.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which strongly opposed the health bill's passage, said Tuesday, “While some discuss repeal, the U.S. Chamber believes a more effective approach is to work through all available and appropriate avenues – regulatory, legislative, legal and political – to fix the bill's flaws and minimize its harmful impacts.”
Obama said last week he would relish a Republican bid to repeal the new law.
“My attitude is, go for it,” Obama said in Iowa on Friday. “If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest.”
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview that his team began months ago pressing Republican candidates to state whether they support repeal of the health care legislation. Most of them have, and Democrats predict such support will prove unpopular this fall.
“We believe the issue of repeal is one that puts the Republicans in a pretty sticky place,” Menendez said. “You never want to wage a campaign telling voters you want to take something away from them.”