The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP has officially hit the ‘buyer’s remorse’ stage on Obamacare repeal

President Obama and Vice President-elect Mike Pence each meet with lawmakers from their parties, Jan. 4, to discuss plans for the Affordable Care Act. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Politics can sometimes resemble a smoldering pile of broken promises. And the GOP's long-standing pledge to repeal Obamacare on Day One of a GOP administration is suddenly looking like it might be thrown on the heap.

Over the last week, 10 Republican senators have voiced concerns about the GOP's plans to repeal the law immediately before a replacement can be crafted, and they're now being joined by a group of very conservative House Republicans.

“I think when we repeal Obamacare we need to have the solution in place moving forward,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on Chuck Todd's MSNBC show. “Again, the solution may be implemented in a deliberate fashion, but I don't think we can repeal Obamacare and say we'll get the answer two years from now.”

Joining Cotton in this sentiment last week were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). And this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is urging patience, as is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Corker and Collins, meanwhile, have joined with Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to file an amendment to the budget reconciliation process that would delay the deadline for repeal legislation from Jan. 27 — one week after President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in — to March 3.

While most of these senators are on the moderate side, they've also gotten some buy-in from the House Freedom Caucus — a group of tea-party-aligned conservatives. “We just need to slow down the process so that we can understand a little bit more of the specifics, the timetable, replacement votes, reconciliation instructions, etcetera,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Monday.

Republicans have 52 senators, so nearly one-fifth of their members have now lodged this concern. Even more importantly, losing three of them could thwart any effort to repeal Obamacare in the near term.

It's not clear how most of these members will actually vote — many of them have demurred on this question, likely because doing so could be cast as a vote against repealing a law the GOP base hates — but there appears to be a very real and growing possibility that Obamacare won't be repealed right away.

Which would seem to be the prudent course politically, given the minefield that replacing the health-care law represents. As I wrote last week:

Obamacare would have been much easier to repeal had it never been implemented in the first place. But today, 20 million Americans have signed up and many other Americans have come to enjoy parts of Obamacare such as the requirement for insurers to cover preexisting conditions and the option of keeping children on their parents' health-care plan until they turn 26.
Republicans and Trump have said they'd like to keep these latter two legs of the stool, but it's not clear how they'll implement such requirements in ways that are solvent. And even if they can keep those things, you still have the prospect of millions of Americans losing a health-care option they've had for years. There may be plenty of Obamacare recipients who aren't enamored of their fast-rising premiums, sure, but for many it's a health-care option that didn't exist before and could be taken away with an indeterminate replacement.

Republicans have floated the idea of a three- or even four-year delay to give themselves time to craft a replacement. Of course, Congress is great at giving itself future deadlines and then failing to meet them (see: sequestration).

The best way to foreclose the possibility of repealing Obamacare and failing to install a good replacement, then, would seem to be to hold off on repealing it until you've got that replacement. And a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that's what the vast majority of Americans would prefer.

As Wonkblog's Carolyn Y. Johnson writes, the poll shows that 49 percent of Americans support repealing Obamacare, but only 20 percent want instant repeal while working out the details of a replacement later. By contrast, 28 percent prefer Congress would do as these 10 GOP senators are urging and wait until there's a replacement. Combine them with the 47 percent who don't want repeal at all, and that's a very healthy popular desire for Congress to leave the law in place, at least for now.

But what's prudent from a policy standpoint isn't always politically practical. The fact is that Republicans have been promising this repeal for years, and backing off that promise risks alienating the base voters they've long stirred with their anti-Obamacare rhetoric.

“On day one of the Trump Administration, we will ask Congress to immediately deliver a full repeal of Obamacare,” Trump's website still reads.

There's also the very real possibility that if the GOP can't come up with a workable replacement that GOP members of Congress have faith in, Obamacare would stay on the books indefinitely, continuing to become more and more difficult to repeal. Some conservatives would certainly view this as a delay tactic that could result in never repealing the law. And if Democrats know that saving Obamacare is as easy as preventing the passage of a replacement, that gives them all kinds of incentive to dig in and try to block it at all turns rather than work with Republicans.

By contrast, instantly repealing Obamacare could put some onus on Democrats to play ball, for hopes of crafting something that is acceptable to them and preventing 20 million Americans from losing their coverage. (Of course, President Obama is urging Democrats not to work with Republicans on this.)

Plenty will play out in the days ahead, but this growing group of cautious Republicans is certainly worth keeping an eye on. The party as a whole seems to be confronting the unhappy reality of their campaign rhetoric, and it's not fun.