Speaker of the House Paul Ryan promised last month that passing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be his top priority in 2016. For those who have watched the political machinations surrounding Obamacare for the past seven years, that sounds like déjà vu. The House of Representatives has passed dozens of bills repealing Obamacare ever since Republicans took control of the lower chamber five years ago.
This time, though, there is one key difference. Thanks to the Republican takeover of the Senate, Republicans can for the first time complete the legislative process and send the repeal to President Barack Obama’s desk. To manage that feat, Senate Republicans will use the budget reconciliation process to pre-empt a Democratic filibuster and keep Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on the sidelines. Republicans learned that maneuver from Reid in 2010 – when he used it to pass the Affordable Care Act after losing a filibuster-proof majority in the Massachusetts special election six years ago. The irony and poetic justice of using Reid’s maneuver will be lost on few people, and certainly not on Harry Reid.
Of course, President Obama will veto the bill, which also bans funding for Planned Parenthood. It has no chance of becoming law at this point. So what’s the point? Why is this such a priority for the GOP? On one level, as a show of defiance, it serves Paul Ryan’s interest as Speaker. More broadly, it demonstrates a belated effort by the Republican Party to deliver on its promises – but this effort might be too little, and too late.
Ryan rose reluctantly to Speaker in the fall after a series of conservative revolts against John Boehner’s leadership finally left him too weak to succeed. The opening didn’t immediately generate any consensus candidates, and the support that existed for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy evaporated after suggesting that one purpose of the Benghazi probe was to damage Hillary Clinton. Conservative House members demanded a change in direction for caucus leadership from Boehner’s team, and Ryan was drafted into the role after first publicly rejecting it.
In exchange for agreeing to replace Boehner, Ryan insisted that conservatives work with him to clear the decks on the FY2016 budget bill, and a return to regular order afterward. Conservatives demanded a fresh start in the New Year, with a real focus on the issues that mattered to their constituents. On the top of the list, at least on domestic policy, are Obamacare and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Getting this bill past Senate leadership fulfills Ryan’s agreement with the conservative caucus members, at least in spirit. This success, even while limited, makes it more likely that the rest of Ryan’s year goes more smoothly than any Boehner experienced.
On the broader level, the bill’s passage in both chambers is obviously intended to blunt the frustration and anger among Republican voters who twice gave the party large midterm victories, only to see very little for their efforts. That anger and frustration has transformed the Republican presidential primary into a platform for outsiders in a cycle where the GOP had more fresh talent within its tent in a very long time. Addressing the midterm priorities of those voters could have prevented the revolt seen in 2015, and now the big question will be whether Congress matters any more to the rank-and-file.
This effort could have been made a year ago, and should have been made a year ago, when the GOP took control of Congress. Instead, Boehner and Mitch McConnell made an understandable but mistaken choice to focus on process rather than issues. Republican leadership wanted to prove it could become a governing party in advance of the 2016 elections, but voters wanted evidence of change instead. That miscalculation not only became the undoing of Boehner but of the Republican Party’s standing with its grassroots voters, who cared much less about process and more about winning on the issues.
In a strange way, Republicans share a failing with Barack Obama: overpromising and underdelivering. Obama spent the last three months promising dramatic action on gun control, only to offer an ambiguous (but still potentially troublesome) adjustment of the definition of a firearms dealer, thanks to the limitations of his executive authority. Republicans spent 2014 promising dramatic action on a number of priorities, especially Obamacare, on which they could never substantively deliver thanks to the limitation of their majorities in the legislative branch. On top of that, the GOP didn’t even bother to offer a symbolic victory until now.
This repeal would have garnered cheers in January or Feburary 2015, even with an Obama veto and no way to override it. A year later, it seems doubtful that it will do much to restore the GOP’s credibility. Bait-and-switch strategies will have that effect and send consumers looking for other options. With just weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primaries, there is little time and almost no opportunity to fix that problem in time to address the anti-establishment fervor in the Republican electorate. Paul Ryan will need to keep delivering in 2016, though, in order to give the GOP enough credibility to fight in the 2016 general election, no matter who the party nominates.