President Trump has put the issue of health care back on the political front burner, providing ammunition to Democrats and worrying Republicans who think a new battle over ObamaCare will hurt their party in next year’s elections.
Senate Republicans, defending 22 seats next year, thought they had put ObamaCare repeal behind them when they told Trump earlier this year that they have no intention of acting on a health care overhaul before the election.
But Trump threw the issue back at them in an interview with ABC News that aired Sunday, saying his administration will unveil “something terrific” to overhaul the nation’s health care system “in a month.” He argued that action is needed because “ObamaCare has been a disaster.”
Republican lawmakers have little idea of what to expect and say there hasn’t been communication from the administration on the issue.
“All the members of Congress thought it had subsided and hope that it continues to be subsided,” one senior GOP aide said.
“We don’t actually agree with each other on what replacement should be, which means we don’t have a replacement that Republicans can unite around,” added the aide, who called Trump’s remarks a “political gift for Democrats.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), signaling she likely agrees with the GOP aide, released a statement Monday denouncing Trump’s plan and saying Democrats would “fight relentlessly” against it.
“The American people already know exactly what the president’s health care plans mean in their lives: higher costs, worse coverage and the end of lifesaving protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered a cautious take, stating of Trump in an interview with Fox News that “we’re looking forward to seeing what he’s going to recommend.”
McConnell added that there’s no chance Congress will act on anything Trump proposes until after next year’s election.
“The problem in the Senate and the House is the Democrats control the House. Se we can’t pass what we would like to do,” he said in an interview on “Fox & Friends.”
McConnell has told colleagues he wants to play offense by making the 2020 health care debate about Democrats’ calls for a single payer “Medicare for All” system. Trump’s move makes that more difficult.
“Democrats would much rather say, ‘Republicans are trying to take away ObamaCare and are trying to repeal the law on preexisting conditions’ and not make it about Medicare for All,” the GOP aide said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also took a shot at the president, saying Trump had repeatedly promised but failed to provide a “magic health care plan.”
“It never comes out,” Schumer tweeted. “Instead they just keep trying to sabotage your health care and suing to end protections for pre-existing conditions.”
The administration filed a legal brief in May calling for an appeals court to strike down all of ObamaCare. This represented a switch, first revealed in March, days after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report was filed with the Department of Justice, from the administration’s earlier position that only portions of the law should be struck down.
Many Republicans were caught off guard by the administration’s legal brief, which was widely seen in GOP circles as a mistake.
Republicans in the Senate, rather than focusing upon repealing the health care law, have sought to work on bipartisan legislation to lower health care costs.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) last month introduced a bill with Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on his committee, to address surprise medical billing and improve transparency for drug pricing.
In a statement last week, he emphasized the bipartisan nature of the proposal.
Separately, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is working with Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top-ranking Democrat on his panel, on legislation to cap seniors’ prescription drug expenses under Medicare.
Polls show why Republicans are nervous about ObamaCare.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll published earlier this month showed that 24 percent of respondents nationwide think health care should be the federal government’s top priority, and Democrats lead Republicans on the issue by 8 points.
Democrats also won back the House majority last fall largely by talking about health care and the GOP’s failed effort to repeal ObamaCare.
“It’s been a loser of an issue for them,” said John Weaver, a GOP strategist who previously worked for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “In the last cycle it was one of the main causes for them losing the House.”
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are skeptical about whether the White House will come out with a detailed health care plan and suspect that Trump’s latest comments may be more motivated by the desire to signal to his conservative base that he hasn’t given up on repealing ObamaCare.
“The president and congressional Republicans have two fundamentally different political views on health care — not substantive views but political views. The president thinks any health care reform, repeal and replace, is a win and goes into his column and helps him and the Republicans,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist.
Weber said the GOP’s best strategy going into 2020 is “attacking the Democrats for being too far to the left, and the Democrats are giving them ammunition.”
McConnell in April said the key to GOP success in 2020 is to make the election “a referendum on socialism,” while Weaver on Monday said Republicans would like Trump to simply focus on the economy.
“You think he would be focused on the economy,” Weaver said. “Republicans have no credibility when it comes to health care.”
He called Trump’s renewed health care push “politically irresponsible.”