There were 60 Democrats in the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009, when they voted in lockstep to pass the Affordable Care Act. Soon there will be 46 Democrats in the Senate, or perhaps 47, if Sen. Mary Landrieu manages to eke out a win in Louisiana. In plain numbers, the post-Obamacare trajectory has not been good for Senate Democrats.
The 46 or 47 Democrats in the next Senate are a bit different from the group that passed Obamacare. Sixteen of them took office after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. They never had to vote for it and have never had to defend voting for it.
Are those post-Obamacare Democrats as strongly opposed to changing the law as their colleagues who voted for it? Or are they possibly a little less personally invested in staving off challenges? It’s a question that will be tested in coming months.
“After (the midterms), the conditions for repeal and replace may be even better than most people think,” writes a Senate Republican aide in an email exchange. “Not only is there a fresh crop of Republicans eager to make good on campaign pledges, but a significant number of Democrats have no particular attachment to the law and may even want to be rid of it as a political issue.”
There could be some wishful thinking in that. Yes, the post-Obamacare Democrats include Sens. Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and perhaps another centrist or two. But there are a lot of solidly doctrinaire liberals in the post-Obamacare class: Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono, Brian Schatz and others. They’ll likely be just as lockstep as their predecessors.
To make fundamental changes in Obamacare, Senate Republicans will have to muster 60 votes, which means — if the GOP has 54 — they will need to find six Democrats to go along. On a few questions, that will probably be easy; for example, there is broad support for repealing Obamacare’s medical device tax. There could be such support for restoring a 40-hour work week.
Of course, even if six or more Democrats join Republicans to pass Obamacare-related measures, the president can still veto them. But he would have to overturn the will of a supermajority in Congress. Maybe that will give him pause. Or maybe not.
Some Democrats, and some outside observers, have tried to convince themselves that Obamacare did not play a central role in the 2014 campaign. The Washington Post reported recently that the GOP “played down its zeal to repeal” Obamacare during the midterms.
That would come as a surprise to the newly elected Republican senators — every one of them — who campaigned on a pledge to repeal Obamacare. It would come as a surprise to the Republican ad makers, both for campaigns and outside groups, who made commercial after commercial attacking Obamacare. And it would also come as a surprise to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell, who in the second paragraph of their joint post-election article in The Wall Street Journal said the voters’ decision “means renewing our commitment to repeal Obamacare.”
What’s unclear is the timing of the Republican move to repeal Obamacare — which will not succeed — and then efforts to strip away parts of the law, which may find some success. Senate Republicans are still in the minority in the lame-duck session, and besides, it appears that President Obama is about to blow up relations with Congress by taking unilateral executive action on immigration.
Also in the mix: the jaw-dropping statements by Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber. So far, Republicans are still trying to digest and figure out how best to use Gruber’s frank admissions that he and fellow Democrats deceived the public on the nature of Obamacare during its passage in 2009 and 2010. House GOP lawmakers were expected to discuss the Gruber revelations at a meeting Thursday morning but never got around to it after long talks on immigration and the budget.
At the very least, Gruber’s words give Republicans a new basis to emphasize what they’ve been saying for a long time. Back in May, McConnell said that Obama “sold (Obamacare) to us on a mountain of lies.” A year ago, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wrote that “Obamacare’s passage was built on a foundation of lies.” Now, they and other Republicans can provide striking new evidence.
But the question always comes back to those moderate Democrats. Could the election results, plus new leadership in the Senate, plus damaging revelations like Gruber’s, and — most importantly — the party’s downward trajectory since passing Obamacare, influence enough moderates to join Republicans? January could be the start of a new phase in the years-long Obamacare war.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.