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Campaign 2014

For Some Republicans, a Quiet Shift Away From Obamacare Repeal

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in Washington on April 8

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in Washington on April 8

For most of the past four years, the Republican Party’s stance on the Affordable Care Act fit comfortably under an unmistakable slogan: Repeal Obamacare. The GOP-controlled House has voted dozens of times to repeal, defund, or otherwise dismantle the law—and made few moves to keep the law in place while trying to modify it.

The repeal-or-nothing approach is getting trickier now that millions of potential voters have enrolled in health plans and started receiving medical care as a result. That means members of Congress running for reelection in November will have to face real people for whom repeal would likely mean losing coverage.

On the other hand, hard-line Obamacare opponents within the GOP’s base are ready to pounce on any comment that suggests any goal short of repeal. Of course, a veto-proof vote to repeal the ACA won’t happen during Obama’s presidency, even if Republicans win a Senate majority this fall. And polls suggest that nearly half of Americans—including a quarter of Republicans—favor modifying the law rather than repealing it and starting over.

But away from reality, in the bizarro world where political campaigns exist, Republican candidates are trying to appease those voters dedicated to repeal without alienating more moderate constituents.

Just look at the pickle in which Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) finds himself: The Senate minority leader, up for reelection this year, faces a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate, Matt Bevin, who promises total opposition to the Affordable Care Act. “Matt will not vote for any spending bills that fund Obamacare. None,” his website says. Bevin’s uncompromising approach recalls the brinksmanship that shut down the government in October, a political disaster for Republicans. He has criticized McConnell for being soft on Obamacare. (Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, got in a spat with Matt Drudge last week after allowing lawmakers to modify an ACA provision by voice vote, which doesn’t record individual members’ positions.)

McConnell still favors repeal, too. Here’s a snippet from his speech on the Senate floor just three weeks ago: “Americans agree that it’s time for Washington Democrats to work with us to remedy the mess they created—and that means repealing this law and replacing it with real reforms.”

But he also appears to be softening his tone. Talking to health-care workers this week in his home state of Kentucky—where the Obamacare marketplace opened more smoothly than in most states—McConnell acknowledged that repeal is unlikely as long as Obama is president. He suggested improving the law was the way to go. “We’re going to figure out a way to get this fixed,” McConnell said, according to a report in the Madison Courier. The language echoes a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad supporting McConnell that said he’s “leading the fight to fix this Obamacare mess,” making no mention of repeal.

The repeal-vs.-repair split is only the latest manifestation of the GOP’s internal struggle between hardline Tea Party idealists and more pragmatic politicians. What McConnell and other candidates say during the campaigns this summer and fall may be a good barometer of which side is winning.

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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