GOP goes full Richard Nixon on Obamacare: We have a fix, but it's a secret!

The Senate GOP is joining its House counterparts by shrouding its majestic ACA fix in total secrecy

By Jim Newell
Published June 11, 2015 4:51PM (EDT)

There was a time when it was House Republicans who wouldn't talk up an Obamacare "contingency" plan until the Supreme Court decision on King v. Burwell was released. Despite assurances from Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Kevin McCarthy earlier this year that "there will be an alternative, and you’re going to get to see it," it took a while for the party to deliver on its pledge to reveal that masterful "alternative" that it was drawing up.

Such a long while, in fact, that it still hasn't happened. Before Supreme Court justices voted on the case -- presumably the Friday after oral arguments were heard in March -- it was in the GOP's interests to signal to the Court as glaringly as possible that there would be no crisis should it strike down subsidies for ACA beneficiaries in some 30-odd states. Once the Court's decision was made, written, and sealed for release sometime this month, it was no longer necessary for Boehner, McCarthy and the rest of the House leadership to pretend that it had settled on a strategy to restore order to health insurance markets without antagonizing anti-ACA dead-enders within the party. Because as far as we can tell, no such conceived strategy has effectively threaded that needle.

The Senate was a different story. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had blessed a "fix" authored by Sen. Ron Johnson, the most endangered Republican senator this cycle who could use a little boost from the majority leader. Johnson's proposal would restore subsidies for two years, effectively putting its future in the hands of the next president, while repealing the law's individual and employer mandates. It's a plan that makes zero sense in terms of ensuring the long-term workability of the Affordable Care Act, and it would be vetoed even if it somehow made it through a Senate filibuster or the factional House Republican conference. It would, however, give the Republicans some cynical cover: Obama wants the subsidies restored, but he won't support our plan to do just that. So cynical that it might even work. The bill garnered dozens of Republican senators' support, if not an outright declaration that this was the plan.

Now, as Bloomberg reports, Republican senators are retreating into the muddier waters of their House counterparts: playing the "we'll let you know the plan when we have to" game. As with Richard Nixon and his "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War in 1968, the hot plan is ready to go, but for now they'll keep it a closely guarded secret.

But what's in the plan?

"We'll let you know depending on the outcome of the decision," the Kentucky Republican said, referring to the case King v. Burwell, which is expected to be decidedthis month.

Bloomberg tried to get answers Tuesday from the senior Republicans who work on health policy. Their fallback plan might interest millions of Americans who stand to lose their insurance subsidies, as well as the insurance industry, which would likely lose many customers and be compelled raise premiums. Details to come, the planners say.

"Yeah, we are" ready to act, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in an interview. But what will the action be? "We'll let you know if we have to do it," he said.

Mmhmm. What I'm hearing here is that the discussion of even a temporary extension of subsidies is not going over well with the more conservative elements of the party, even if it's paired, as it is in the Johnson bill, with the elimination of other essential Obamacare mechanisms. So for now they've decided to take a wait-and-see approach. (It is worth reiterating during all of this that, for what it's worth, Court observers came out of the King oral arguments in March expecting a majority to side with the government. But this Court is always down for a good surprise, like that time five years back that it effectively eliminated campaign finance law.)

Republicans have plenty of leverage to work with if the Court rules for the plaintiffs. If the subsidies are eliminated, people lose coverage and premiums soar, Republicans can argue that Democrats passed this faulty law in 2010 and suddenly everything is terrible. Key to pressing this advantage, though, will be a unified front among congressional Republicans. If their attempts to pass even poison-laden "fixes" result in intra-party acrimony in both chambers -- within the realm of possibility! -- then they may well be the ones left holding the bag.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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