Republicans Realize Obamacare Lawsuit Would Destroy Them, Not Obamacare

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Erin Meredith, one of the 11.4 million potential victims of an anti-Obamacare lawsuit.Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Liberals have spent months freaking out about King v. Burwell, a right-wing lawsuit that they believe would cripple or even destroy Obamacare. I argued recently it would do no such thing, one reason being that Republicans would pay a heavy political price for standing by and doing nothing as 11.5 million mostly middle-class Americans immediately lose their insurance.

My argument was based on assessing the political calculus from the outside. We now have a lot of information about what Republicans think from the inside. And the case looks even stronger than I initially suspected.

If it succeeds, which I would not bet on, the King v. Burwell lawsuit would eliminate tax credits for people buying insurance through federal exchanges. Yesterday, Ben Sasse, Republican senator and darling of the right, published a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging fellow Republicans to extend those tax credits for a year and a half. To make his message palatable to conservatives, Sasse decorates his argument with lots and lots of fiery denunciations of Obamacare’s evil bureaucracy that does not and cannot work. (“ObamaCare’s central planning is unworkable and unpopular,” he writes, which makes one wonder how 11.5 million people are getting insurance from an unworkable market and why they would not object to its termination.) Sasse likewise insists this “temporary” extension is merely step one of the plan, with step two being the Republicans finally unifying around their alternative health care plan. At this point, six years after the health care debate began, this should be regarded like Ike Turner’s plan to become a loving and supportive spouse. It’s rhetoric Republicans feel obligated to periodically use, and some feel obligated to believe, but which has no meaning.

But the core of Sasse’s argument is that the onus of the meltdown King v. Burwell hopes to trigger would fall squarely on the GOP. Should the lawsuit succeed, Sasse argues, Republican states will face overwhelming demands to create their own exchanges (“the political pressure to adopt ObamaCare will be crippling.”)

Today, conservative reporter Byron York has much more detail. Private polling by a conservative group found that “huge majorities” would want Congress to restore subsidies for people who had lost them. “We’re worried about ads saying cancer patients are being thrown out of treatment, and Obama will be saying all Congress has to do is fix a typo,” one staffer confesses.

My column took for granted that Congress would do nothing and that states would create their own exchanges only over the course of years. Sasse’s op-ed and York’s reporting suggest I was far too pessimistic. Congress probably would be forced to act, and if it fails, many or most states would capitulate very quickly. We have all been looking at the politics of King v. Burwell backwards.