Health care defeat leaves GOP in crouch, Dems on offense
By ALAN FRAM
Sep. 29, 2017
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans face a big problem following the collapse of their latest push to repeal the Obama health care law: Their own voters are angry and don't trust them.
Right now, they don't know what to do about it. That's trouble for a party preparing to defend its House and Senate majorities in 2018 midterm elections that look riskier than most imagined months ago.
President Donald Trump and top congressional Republicans say they'll take another run next year at dismantling President Barack Obama's health care law. But they've made doing just that a core promise in four consecutive national elections with nothing to show for it.
"If I'm a voter in wherever and somebody says, 'We're going to come back to health care,' would I be skeptical? Sure," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who's retiring rather than seek a third term next year. He added, "When something has been committed to and it doesn't happen and then it doesn't happen again, I think it's self-evident it isn't a good thing."
This year's failure was especially stinging because it was the first time since Obama's 2010 overhaul law was enacted that they've controlled the White House and Congress. The latest debacle came Tuesday, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., averted a guaranteed defeat by not holding a vote on a last-resort bill transforming much of Obama's law into block grants that states would control.
The setbacks are causing strains among Senate Republicans.
"It's obvious we don't have the kind of leadership we need to pass this piece of legislation," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told a reporter Friday after an appearance in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. Johnson, who's clashed with McConnell before, declined to say if the leader should step down.
The broken promises are an "epic fail" that "puts less trust in the minds of conservative voters," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by the activist brothers David and Charles Koch.
The GOP health care implosion "has poisoned the attitude of GOP primary voters toward congressional Republicans in general," Steven Law wrote in a memo this week. Law, McConnell's former chief of staff, heads the Senate Leadership Fund, a political group allied with the Kentucky Republican.
Law's memo was released Tuesday, hours before the GOP primary defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., by conservative lightning rod Roy Moore. Establishment Republicans including McConnell backed Strange, as did Trump.
Law warned that the ouster of Strange would make him "the first casualty — and probably not the last — of the Obamacare repeal fiasco."
In an ABC News-Washington Post poll this week, more Republicans disapproved than approved of the job the congressional GOP is doing by a dismal 21 percentage points. That's the fourth-worst showing since 1994.
Just eight Senate Republicans face re-election in 2018, and only two have seemed to face serious GOP primary challenges: Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Nevada's Dean Heller.
But fed by Republican voters' anti-establishment mood and disillusionment over the party's health care failures, that number could grow.
Conservative Mississippi state legislator Chris McDaniel called Moore's victory "incredibly inspiring" and could challenge GOP Sen. Roger Wicker. Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House adviser, is a bitter McConnell critic who might encourage conservatives to contest other GOP incumbents.
Democrats and their independent allies must defend 25 Senate seats next year, far more than the GOP's eight, making a Democratic majority improbable. Democrats would need to gain 24 seats to take over the House, a reach.
But they see this year's GOP health care bills — which budget analysts said would have stripped coverage from millions of Americans — as feeding their narrative that Republicans are eroding people's economic security.
If Republicans revisit health care next year, it would "reawaken the public giant," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads Senate Democrats' campaign committee. Polls showed public opinion favors retaining Obama's law.
Hoping to right themselves, Republicans are focusing on cutting taxes in search of their first significant legislative win this year. Success is far from guaranteed, but many say a tax victory would smooth the political waters.
But some Republicans say attacking Obama's law again remains mandatory.
"Is it damaging? Without a doubt," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said of the party's repeal failure. "And if we just leave it there, then it's more problematic."
Trump has advocated ramming a repeal measure through with GOP votes and bargaining with Democrats, two difficult and mutually exclusive paths. Either way, why they might suddenly succeed during the 2018 election year after a seven-year parade of failure on the issue remains unclear.
Some Republicans back an uphill effort by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to compromise with Democrats and approve subsidies to insurers to curb growing premiums. Others like No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas call that a "bailout" for that industry.
AP reporter Todd Richmond in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, contributed.