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POLITICS: PennAve

The health care debate is already changing for Republicans in 2014

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Congress,Republican Party,Health Care,2014 Elections,PennAve,Rebecca Berg

Repealing Obamacare is so 2013.

In the coming year, the tone and substance of the political discourse around the troubled Obamacare will shift slightly -- but notably -- as candidates face the first election cycle since the new health care law took effect and millions of people enrolled in plans through the insurance exchanges it created.

With President Obama's health care reforms now entrenched as law, repealing it will be highly impractical, undermining one of the Republican Party's major talking points. The debate will morph into a question of which party can better refine and rework the law, operatives in both parties predict.

Democrats, having roundly foundered with messaging since the health care legislation became law in 2010, are already beginning to jockey for a patch of higher ground, portraying themselves as the only ones amenable to fixing the law.

“I think what most Americans want us to do is not repeal Obamacare, which is what our Republican colleagues are focused on, but fix it,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a recent televised interview. “The president is working to fix it, we are working in the Senate to fix it, we urge our Republican colleagues to join us in fixing it.”

For many Republicans, who for years have foretold weaknesses with the law while Democrats only praised it, such rhetoric rings hollow.

“Democrats are trying to distract the American people by suddenly becoming the staunch defenders of fixing Obamacare — but they didn’t want to touch Obamacare,” said Jason Meath, a political media consultant with Meath Media Group. “All of a sudden, they’re now more than willing to correct its flaws.”

“I think Republicans’ No. 1 challenge in 2014 is to be sure that there’s accountability with this,” Meath added.

One potential wrinkle for the Republican Party is its well-established identity as the driving force behind the push to repeal Obamacare -- a catchy GOP message for the past few years, and one that might still be in vogue in competitive 2014 Republican primaries in which staunchly conservative candidates could force other candidates to move further the right.

But with people having signed up for insurance under Obamacare, making a full repeal more of a pipe dream than ever, the durability of a blunt stance is in question.

National polls show that most Americans would rather see the law refined or replaced rather than repealed wholesale. An NBC News/WSJ poll in December showed that only about a quarter of people favored eliminating the law entirely.

Democrats, having taken note of that trend in public sentiment, are now claiming the mantle of open-minded problem-solvers in hopes of boxing Republicans in to the repeal-or-nothing corner.

“Republicans are so deep in the trenches on the repeal issue,” said J.B. Poersch, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a managing director of SKDKnickerbocker. “It is going to be the Republican cross to bear, that at the end of the day they’re sitting on their hands, they’re not really willing to fix it, they just want the opportunity to take it apart.”

The idea that Republicans will for the first time emphasize fixes to the health care law in 2014 “is incorrect — or at least overblown,” countered Brad Dayspring, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Republicans believe Obamacare is a horrible law, and have consistently offered Obamacare alternatives and fixes.” He pointed to the push to repeal the Medical Device Tax as an example.

Until now, however, offering such specific health care policy alternatives to Obamacare has not been a priority for Republicans eager to defund the law.

“You’re going to see a lot more Republicans talk about the solutions we want to put in place that are more market-driven,” Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said.

The GOP has not yet coalesced around one or even a handful of alternative plans, however. Some proposals being floated in Congress include increasing choice by allowing people to buy insurance across state lines, limiting health care costs by capping medical malpractice court settlements or expanding use of health savings accounts.

“Hopefully one of these ideas will start winning the day,” Spicer said of the percolating proposals.

Publicly, Democrats are practically daring Republicans to give it their best shot. Schumer said he didn't think Obamacare would be the premiere issue in the 2014 midterm elections. And other Democrats point to the previous two elections, when Democrats maintained the majority in the Senate despite the law's political weight.

“If Republicans want to waste their time talking about the (Affordable Care Act) for the entire election, as they have for last two cycles,” said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky, “more power to them.”

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Rebecca Berg

Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner