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Hearings floated as Hill Republicans seize on Gruber Obamacare comments

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This post was updated at 1:30 p.m. 

Congressional Republicans seized Wednesday on controversial comments made by a former health-care consultant to the Obama administration, with one leading House conservative suggesting that hearings could be called in response as part of the GOP effort to dismantle the law in the next Congress and turn public opinion ahead of the 2016 election.

"We may want to have hearings on this," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an influential voice among GOP hardliners and a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in an interview at the Capitol. "We shouldn't be surprised they were misleading us."

The firestorm began when a video emerged showing Jonathan Gruber, a high-profile architect of the Affordable Care Act and one of its fiercest advocates, suggesting that the health reform law passed through Congress because of the “stupidity of the American voter” and a “lack of transparency” over its funding mechanisms. The remarks were originally made in 2013 during a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania but began heavy circulation on social media Monday.

"This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes," Gruber said. "Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the 'stupidity of the American voter' or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Gruber apologized for his incendiary remarks in an on-air interview with MSNBC Tuesday afternoon, calling his comments inappropriate and saying he was speaking "off the cuff." On Tuesday evening, Fox News' Megyn Kelly aired a second video, of Gruber calling voters stupid, also from 2013.

The controversy has lit a fire under conservatives eager to dismantle the law and has raised eyebrows among the law’s defenders, who are concerned that such comments will further damage the law’s already shaky standing with American voters. It also comes after a sweeping electoral victory for Republicans last Tuesday, who won control of the Senate and bolstered the size of their majority in the House.

Jordan said House Republicans have been sending each other a blizzard of e-mails and text messages this week, and he expects the interest in "bringing [Gruber] up here to talk" will gain traction as members return to Washington. House Republicans will gather Thursday evening for their first series of votes since the election.

"I just had a colleague text me saying, 'We've got to look into this!" Jordan said as he glanced at his phone outside the House floor Wednesday morning.

The chatter among lawmakers echoes the outrage among the conservative grassroots over the comments. Sen. Ted Cruz in a speech last week said targeting ACA must remain the party's top priority. "Now is the time to go after and do everything humanely possible to repeal Obamacare," he said.

House GOP leadership aides expressed new optimism that their desire to target the ACA could get some momentum. While rhetorically committed to full repeal, in order to keep the party's right flank on board, the party is looking more seriously at undermining specific parts of the law as it navigates divided government next year. Those moves could include repealing the medical device tax; watering down a requirement that employers offer full time workers coverage, which takes effect in January; and changing the definition of a full-time worker from someone who works at least 30 hours a week to someone who works at least 40 -- all proposals which could win some Democratic support.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is slated to become chairman of the powerful Senate budget committee, also threw his support behind possible hearings. In a furious gaggle with reporters, Sessions said Gruber's comments could make dealings with the White House more difficult, days after Republican leaders said they would seek areas of common ground.

"The strategy was to hide the truth from the American people," Sessions said. "I'm not into this post-modern world where you can say whatever you want to in order to achieve your agenda. That is a threat to the American republic... This is far deeper and more significant than the fact that he just spoke."

Other Senate Republicans expressed similar discomfort with Gruber, but warned conservatives to not get their hopes up about repealing the health-care law while President Obama remains in office, underscoring the tonal difference between the more rabble-rousing House GOP and the new and more even-tempered Republican Senate majority.

Heading into a party luncheon on Wednesday, retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the health care law "is going to still be there regardless because we don't have the votes" to undo it.

"We can talk all we want but he is going to veto whatever we send him," Coburn said. "That's the reality."

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he was unsure of how Senate Republicans would use the Gruber kerfuffle to go after the law, if at all. For the moment, he said, Republicans should focus on using the episode to highlight how the national press has covered the president's signature policy.

"What Gruber said should be read and reported on by every news organization," he said. "People should be aware of how this administration thinks."

Several Democrats said Wednesday that they were unaware of Gruber's comments and declined to speculate on whether there could be political consequences, underscoring how much of the discussion is being driven by Republicans. One, however, did distance herself from the arguably aloof phrasing used by Gruber. "I have not seen them," said Sen. Patty Murrary (D-Wash). "But I do think voters are pretty smart."

The challenge for Republicans will be balancing the conservative ire surrounding Gruber with the leaders' political imperative to establish themselves as a governing congressional majority. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) have pledged to bring another repeal bill to floor, but are also focused on achieving incremental legislative gains on Keystone XL and trade agreements.