The Supreme Court could soon move to void many Obamacare subsidies -- something Republicans are banking on to effectively gut the law. But even if that happens, the American people say they would like the GOP Congress to restore the subsidies.
That’s according to a new poll. And although it might not be quite that simple, it demonstrates a real dilemma Republicans could find themselves in if the Supreme Court does what they hope it will.
The poll, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, shows that 64 percent of people say they would want Congress to re-expand the subsidies to all beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act, if the Supreme Court voids some of them.
At issue in the Supreme Court case, King v. Burwell, is whether the law was intended to provide subsidies only for states that set up their own exchanges – as it appears to be written – or whether the subsidies should given to consumers in all states, the majority of which did not set up their own exchanges. (The sponsors of the legislation argue this was the intent, despite poor language.)
But while the poll suggests that Americans want to keep Obamacare intact, it ignores one key piece of the looming debate.
Nowhere in Kaiser’s question does it mention the fact that Republicans believe a decision to scale back the subsidies would effectively undermine the entire law and render it unworkable. If that were mentioned, people who oppose the law might be more apt to say Congress should sit on its hands.
As it stands, the question offers a choice between Congress restoring health-care subsidies for "low- and moderate-income" Americans – a pretty positive idea – and Congress doing nothing – something people are quite tired of. So it might overstate support for the former.
At the same time, the 27 percent of people who say they want Congress to let the law be, even if the subsidies are rolled back, is pretty close to the overall number of people who say they want the law repealed: 32 percent. So maybe it’s on the right track.
(Opposition to the law has long been split between people who want outright repeal and those who want to fix the law/scale it back. Fourteen percent prefer the latter in the new poll.)
But the poll does reveal a significant PR issue for Republicans were the Supreme Court to strike down the federal-exchange subsidies. And that is this: At that point, Republicans who want the law to die altogether would be forced to argue that Congress shouldn't restore the subsidies that many Americans enjoy.
And as the debates over reforming Social Security and Medicare show, once you start giving people government benefits, it becomes very difficult to take them away.
Democrats would relentlessly drive home the idea that Republicans would be trying to take away people’s health-care subsidies. From there, it would be up to Republicans to make the case that letting Obamacare implode is a holier goal than restoring those subsidies.
The law is still not popular, but as this poll shows, the repeal movement isn't exactly a majority. And the opponents who say it should be scaled back could certainly still be on board with restoring the subsidies.
Of course, just because restoring subsidies might be popular doesn't mean congressional Republicans would do it. The GOP base would certainly cry foul if they moved to do so.
But if Democrats can seize on the apparent support for restoring subsidies and apply real pressure on the GOP, the Supreme Court might not be the final arbiter of Obamacare after all.