WASHINGTON — The health care law’s seemingly endless problems are giving congressional Republicans a much-needed boost of energy, helping them to move past the government-shutdown debacle and focus on a theme for next year’s elections.
Republicans are back on offense, and more quickly than many had expected, after seeing their approval ratings plunge during last month’s partial shutdown and worrisome talk of a possible U.S. debt default.
They pillory administration officials at Capitol Hill hearings. They cite the millions of people getting dropped by insurers despite President Barack Obama’s promise that it wouldn’t happen. They harp on the program’s flawed enrollment process.
Now they’re relishing Obama’s apology to those who are losing health insurance plans he had repeatedly said they could keep.
“If the president is truly sorry for breaking his promises to the American people, he’ll do more than just issue a halfhearted apology on TV,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.
Republicans once pinned their health care criticisms largely on computer glitches in the application and enrollment process. Today, they’re accusing Obama and congressional Democrats of much worse, including deceit and incompetence.
Conservative groups are pouring money into ad campaigns reminding voters that many Democrats had promised Americans they could keep their current insurance policies if they wanted. In particular, Republicans hope these efforts will help them with women, who tend to vote Democratic and often make health care decisions for their families and in-laws.
In the 2014 elections, “this is going to be a big issue, and it’s not going away,” said Daniel Scarpinato of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Democrats who voted for Obamacare,” he said, “are pretty desperately running around with their hair on fire, trying to distance themselves, which they’re not going to be able to do.”
The White House says canceled policies can be replaced with better coverage, sometimes at lower prices. What the administration doesn’t emphasize is that better coverage often costs more, and those looking for new policies may not qualify for the tax subsidies available under the new law.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the GOP’s top Senate campaign group, acknowledged that Republicans took a hit last month when an angry public blamed them for the 16-day partial government shutdown.
But now, he said, “there’s a spring in the step” of party activists.
Potential congressional candidates “who might have been 50-50 about running for office might be a little more inclined” to plunge in, he said. Best of all, Dayspring said, the most vulnerable Democratic lawmakers have echoed Obama’s now-disproven promises about insurance cancellations and “most of them are on film doing it.”
The conservative group American Crossroads already is using such film clips against Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, who face re-election next year. The group is paying to place the videos on Facebook and other sites.
Another conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, says it will spend $2 million in a new ad campaign tying Obama’s health care law to Hagan and Landrieu.
Begich, Landrieu and Hagan were among the 16 Democratic senators who met with Obama on Wednesday, a day after two gubernatorial elections highlighted the party’s struggles with the health issue. Half of New Jersey voters and 53 percent of Virginia voters said they oppose the president’s health law. The two Democratic gubernatorial nominees won 11 percent and 14 percent of those voters, respectively.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected in Virginia, while Republican Gov. Chris Christie cruised to re-election in New Jersey.
Several of the Democratic senators cited the program’s malfunction website when they urged Obama to extend the enrollment deadline for people to sign up for health insurance.
Republicans must pick up six Senate seats next year to gain control for the first time in eight years. If they prevent Democrats from gaining 17 net House seats, they will sustain the GOP House majority they won in 2010.
Dayspring said the law’s problems will help his party combat Democrats’ claim that Republicans are engaged in a “war on women” on matters such as access to contraceptives. His campaign committee is targeting Hagan, Landrieu and other female Democrats with messages saying “Obamacare could hurt hundreds of thousands of women,” yet these Democratic lawmakers stand by the law.
Landrieu was among the first Democrats to propose legislation to let people keep their current health insurance policies even if they don’t cover newly required areas such as hospitalization, laboratory services and prenatal care.
Landrieu said Louisiana voters won’t buy the GOP’s new attack lines against her and other Democratic women.
“If the Republican Party does not stop talking about a bill that is already passed, signed into law” and promising “that middle-class Americans and small businesses can for the first time get private insurance that they can afford and that they can count on, they will rue the day,” she said.
Republicans also are making the “Obamacare”-hurts-women argument in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen faces re-election next year. Shaheen calls the claims absurd.
The Republican Party’s basic position on health care, Shaheen said, “opposes contraceptives for women and is unwilling to provide access to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.”
Now, she said, Republicans want people to believe “that the great new preventive coverage that women are going to get under the new health care law is somehow not going to be good for women and families.”
“It’s like being called ugly by a frog,” Shaheen said.
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington