We’re hatching a pretty slick plan here. Oh, wait… (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

THE MORNING PLUM:

Politico’s lead headline today blares: “Democrats open to replacing Obamacare.”

The story accompanying that headline is more nuanced than that. But it does raise the prospect that some Senate Democrats might be going wobbly about the coming battle over repeal and replace. And it points out that Dems might find themselves under pressure to acquiesce to Republicans in ways that would produce a terrible outcome.

But the story is at least as revealing in another way: It demonstrates key weaknesses that Republicans face in the coming battle, ones that Democrats can exploit — if they handle this correctly. Here’s the crux of it:

Senate Democrats will never vote to repeal Obamacare. But once the deed is done, a surprising number of them say they’re open to helping Republicans replace it. “If it makes sense, I think there’ll be a lot of Democrats who would be for it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

As Republicans aim to make good on their years-long vow to quash Obamacare and replace it with their own health care vision, they’ll have to do something Democrats were never able to: Bring members of the opposing party on board. Enacting any substantive alternative will take at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate.

Yet the GOP will have powerful leverage that Democrats lacked in 2009 – namely, a huge number of members facing reelection in hostile territory. Twenty-five Democrats are on the ballot in 2018, including 10 in states that Donald Trump just won. The GOP is betting that many or most in the latter group will be under irresistible pressure to back an Obamacare replacement, if the alternative is leaving millions of people in the lurch without insurance.

The GOP game plan is to repeal much of the law via a simple majority “reconciliation” process, killing the Medicaid expansion and the subsidies that have expanded coverage to many millions. Republicans would implement a delay in repeal kicking in, so they can develop a replacement that — because it would be much more in keeping with GOP health reform ideas — would end up covering far fewer people.

Donald Trump has campaigned to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, once he gets into office. Now that he's won the presidency with a majority Republican House and Senate, that feat might not prove to be too easy. Wonkblog's Max Ehrenfreund explains. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

At this point, goes the theory, Democrats facing reelection in 2018 would be under pressure to join Republicans in backing this replacement, because it would at least cover some people. Result: Obamacare is repealed; GOP replace goes into effect; far fewer people are covered, but Republicans can say they did reform the health system and helped people. The story quotes a few Democrats saying they might be open to backing some kind of replacement in this scenario.

But there are problems with this plan. Some Republicans want to delay repeal to push the fallout (millions losing health insurance) until after the 2018 midterm elections, while using the specter of that fallout as a leverage point in the run-up to those elections to force Dems into cooperating to bail all those people out with a GOP replacement. But to do this, Republicans would have to be offering a plan that actually bails all those people out with a GOP replacement. Only then could they blast Democrats for failing to join them in helping bail out all those people.

Most experts expect Republicans to offer a replacement plan that would cover far fewer people. If so, at that point, Republicans would still be in the position of rolling back the health coverage of millions — those who benefited from Obamacare, but won’t regain coverage under the GOP replacement — even if the GOP replacement were to pass. With that looming, that’s the point at which Democrats can position themselves as the ones who are arguing for actually bailing out those people, by saying that they will only support a more generous replacement plan that covers a lot more people than the GOP replacement would.

Speaking to The Washington Post Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that it will be a lot easier to repeal Obamacare than replace it, due to Senate procedure. "Repealing it easier and faster because that could be a 51 vote," McCarthy said. "Replacing is going to be 60 votes." Asked when Congress would begin the process of repealing or replacing the law, McCarthy said he doesn't want to put a time limit to get it done by a certain date. "I want to make sure it gets done right," he said. "You need to make sure you replace it properly." (Washington Post Live)

At this point, the Republican argument would devolve into absurdity. Are Republicans really going to blast Democrats for refusing to cooperate in covering people, after they have already voted to repeal coverage for all of Obamacare’s beneficiaries, and even as they are insisting on a replacement that covers far fewer people than the Democrats want to cover? No question, Republicans are highly skilled at covering up their policy gibberish with all manner of obfuscation, but good luck messaging that one.

What’s more, if Republicans do repeal much of the ACA through reconciliation — and they are almost certain to succeed at that — the fallout from this vote may well begin immediately. As others have already pointed out, insurers might exit the exchanges rather than stick around and wait for a replacement that might never materialize. And, if Republicans keep the ban on discrimination against preexisting conditions while repealing the mandate, that could wreak havoc on the insurance markets. The ensuing mess could shift the political calculus in the near term, putting more pressure on Republicans to do something to replace the ACA, which in turn (since a number of congressional conservatives won’t support any replacement) would require Democratic cooperation. Dems could theoretically leverage that for a much better replacement.

To be sure, for Democrats to play this right, they need to hold to a hard, unified line against any sub-standard GOP replace plan. Chuck Schumer has vowed to me that Democrats will do that. But we don’t know for sure if they will. Right now, Democrats probably should be laying down a marker, making it clear that the only replacement they’ll accept is one that does not substantially roll back the coverage expansion achieved by Obamacare.

To be sure, one very possible outcome is that the ACA is mostly repealed and falls apart, and no replacement ever passes, either because Republicans cannot reach consensus on any replace plan, or because Democrats end up refusing to support the one they do create. Many Republicans would be quietly fine with this outcome, and surely some conservatives would celebrate it. But it wouldn’t be “repeal and replace.” It would just be “repeal.” More than 20 million would lose coverage, a huge mess would ensue, and we’d battle all this out again heading into the 2020 elections.

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* PUTIN WAS DIRECTLY INVOLVED, OFFICIALS SAY: NBC News reports that U.S. officials have concluded Vladimir Putin was directly involved in efforts to swing the election:

Two senior officials with direct access to the information say new intelligence shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used. The intelligence came from diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies, the officials said. The U.S has solid information tying Putin to the operation, the intelligence officials say.

If more news like this keeps coming, it could increase the pressure on congressional Republicans to allow a genuinely bipartisan, independent investigation into what happened.

* OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY IS AMASSING POWER: The Post has a nicely reported piece documenting how the fossil fuel industry is poised for a major comeback in Trump’s Washington:

The oil, gas and coal industries are amassing power throughout Washington — from Foggy Bottom, where ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson is Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, to domestic regulatory agencies including the departments of Energy and Interior as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. … A slew of Obama administration policies on fossil fuels are expected to be reversed after Trump is sworn into office on Jan. 20.

This will do wonders to drain the swamp and trigger a massive revival of coal mining jobs.

* AMERICANS DIVIDED ON TRUMP’S CABINET PICKS: A new CBS News poll finds that Trump’s Cabinet choices are meeting far less public approval than those of his predecessors did:

Forty-one percent approve of the choices Donald Trump has made for his cabinet so far, while another 41 percent disapprove.  Reaction to Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointees is far more negative than his two immediate predecessors:  seven in 10 Americans approved of the cabinet appointments of Barack Obama, and six in 10 approved of those appointed by George W. Bush.

But Trump won by a “landslide” and his mandate is huge, tremendous and wonderful.

* AMERICANS SKEPTICAL OF TRUMP’S PLANS FOR HIS BUSINESS: The CBS poll also finds that a large majority of Americans do not think putting his sons in charge of his businesses will prevent conflicts of interest later:

While a quarter of Americans think doing so will prevent Mr. Trump from having conflicts of interest, seven in 10 do not.  More than four in 10 Republicans agree with large majorities of Democrats (90 percent) and independents (73 percent) that this may not be adequate to prevent conflicts of interest while he serves as president.

The poll does find that 50 percent say Trump is likely to act in America’s interests, and not those of his business empire, so he may get cut a bit of slack. But not much — and that’s the key.

* REPUBLICANS PRESSURE TRUMP NOT TO PICK BOLTON: The Times reports that top Republicans don’t want Trump to pick John Bolton as deputy secretary of state, because he’s “combative and strident” and aligned with the Dick Cheney hawks in the party:

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said privately that he has misgivings … Mr. Bolton … is also facing stiff resistance from some of the Republican Party’s best-known leaders in world affairs … They include Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state and national security adviser, who clashed with Mr. Cheney.

It’s also amusing that Trump, who duped people into seeing him as “anti-war” by blasting the Iraq War as the height of folly during the campaign, might install one of its most vocal advocates.

* DON’T EXPECT AN ELECTORAL COLLEGE REVOLT: The Associated Press talks to hundreds of electors and concludes there’s no way it will happen:

Scores of the Republicans chosen to cast votes in the state-capital meetings told AP they feel bound by history, duty, party loyalty or the law to rubber-stamp their state’s results and make him president. Appeals numbering in the tens of thousands — drowning inboxes, ringing cell phones, stuffing home and office mailboxes with actual handwritten letters — have not swayed them.

The article also details the outpouring of angst from people across the country who have been lobbying them — a window into just how much dread there is out there about President Trump.

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, DRAIN-THE-SWAMP EDITION: Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, actually defended Trump’s evolving conflicts-of-interest this way:

“You tell everyone, here’s what’s going on, here’s the process, here are the people that are playing a role, that’s being transparent. Conflicts of interest arise when you’re not — when you’re sneaky about it, when you’re shady about it, when you’re not transparent about it.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Conflicts of interest only exist if you’re being “sneaky” instead of “transparent.” Come to think of it, doesn’t this mean Trump should release his tax returns?