Democratic candidates for the House and Senate who are struggling to focus voters on health-care policy and the threat that Republicans pose to a steadily-more-popular Affordable Care Act got an unlikely assist in their warnings. It came from none other than Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, as Reuters reports:
Republicans could try again to repeal Obamacare if they win enough seats in U.S. elections next month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday, calling a failed 2017 push to repeal the healthcare law a “disappointment.”
This suggestion wasn’t just a vague or abstract comment. McConnell raised it during a Reuters interview on his “2019 policy goals.” He certainly gave some ammunition to Democratic claims that every Senate seat matters:
If we had the votes to completely start over, we’d do it. But that depends on what happens in a couple weeks… We’re not satisfied with the way Obamacare is working.
The budget resolution that authorized Obamacare-repeal legislation expired on September 30, 2017. So yes, Republicans would have to “start over” with a fresh set of budget-reconciliation instructions making it possible to repeal Obamacare without the legislation falling prey to a Democratic filibuster. Then they’d have to do what they failed to do in 2017: muster 50 Senate votes for the actual legislation.
One of the three Republican votes they failed to secure last time around belonged to the late John McCain. But two others were cast by Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who have given no indication they’ve changed their minds about the kind of harsh system their Republican colleagues wanted to substitute for Obamacare. So, presumably, the GOP would need to gain at least one Senate seat to make McConnell’s dream possible. That’s entirely possible, given the heavily slanted pro-Republican landscape this year. FiveThirtyEight is now projecting an 82 percent probability that Republicans maintain control of the Senate, with an “average gain” of 0.6 seats. As an indication of how close Republicans are to big gains even in a bad year, FiveThirtyEight calculates there is a 10 percent chance Republicans pick up five or more net seats. In a Senate with 56 Republicans, Collins and Murkowski would be very lonely.
The bigger problem with another Obamacare repeal would be in the House. Obviously, if Democrats win control of the chamber, Obamacare repeal is dead for another two years. A narrow Republican “hold” on the House might not be much better. In May of 2017 Obamacare repeal passed the House by a slim four votes, with every single Democrat voting “no.” Yes, some of the 20 Republicans casting “no” votes have retired, and others may well lose in November. But still, it would be tough to maintain a majority in favor of repeal in a narrowly Republican House where some survivors of a Democratic trend will not be excited about inviting another tough challenge in 2020.
So if this is a fairly remote prospect, why did McConnell bring it up? The only logical explanation is that he thinks a perpetual commitment to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is important to the GOP’s conservative base, that all-powerful deity to which Republican leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have been bowing lately. Perhaps bringing down the Great White Whale of Obamacare remains a strong enough obsession that the very thought of it might motivate a critical number of rank-and-file Republicans to get off the couch and vote before or on November 6. And if it works and Republicans hang onto both Houses of Congress, they’ll have to heft that harpoon again, even if it terrifies Americans in danger of losing their health insurance.