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Congress Prepares for Tug of War Over Obama's Healthcare Program

  • Michael Bowman

House Speaker Paul Ryan (foreground) is joined by fellow Republicans, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence (second left), at a news conference following a closed-door meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 4, 2017. Both Ryan and Pence have vowed to repeal and replace President Obama's healthcare law now that their party is in control of the White House and Congress.

In a clash of current and future administrations, President Barack Obama went to Congress Wednesday hoping to preserve his signature healthcare law, while Vice President-elect Mike Pence visited the Capitol to solidify a Republican agenda that will take aim at Obama’s legacy once Donald Trump becomes president later this month.

The dueling appearances brought a highly unusual spectacle: the leader of an outgoing administration and a principal of the incoming administration lobbying lawmakers at the same time to diametrically opposed ends.

House and Senate Democrats, still smarting from last year’s election results, emerged from a closed-door presidential pep talk saying they were heartened and determined to fight for core principles and beliefs long after Obama, their most potent ally, leaves office January 20.

“He [Obama] was very inspiring,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “We have a great deal of optimism that the good things that have happened in ACA [Affordable Care Act] are going to stay.”

President-elect Donald Trump criticized the Democrats' stance on the healthcare plan in a series of tweets Thursday. "The Democrats, lead by head clown Chuck Schumer, known how bad ObamaCare is and what a mess they are in," Trump tweeted.

The ACA, also known as Obamacare, has broadened the opportunities for Americans to buy private health insurance and dramatically reduced the number of people who lack coverage.

Critics have focused on certain compulsory aspects of the program and its cost. The healthcare program, approved by Congress without any Republican votes during the president's first term in the White House, has seen many insurers drop out of the program or raise premiums sharply - in some cases, more than doubling subscribers' costs.

Obama did not speak with reporters at the Capitol, but Pence reaffirmed his party’s intention to end Obamacare.

“The American people have sent new leadership here because Obamacare has failed and has been rejected by the American people,” the incoming vice president said. “I was here in March 2010 when Obamacare was signed into law. I remember all those promises. We were told if you like your doctor you can keep it - not true. We were told if you like your health insurance you can keep it - not true. We were told the cost of health insurance was going to go down - not true.”

President Barack Obama shakes hands with bystanders as he leaves a meeting about his signature healthcare law with members of Congress, Jan. 4, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with bystanders as he leaves a meeting about his signature healthcare law with members of Congress, Jan. 4, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

While eager to make good on a campaign promise, Republicans have yet to agree on a detailed plan for replacing Obamacare, or even whether such a plan must be enacted at the same time the ACA is scrapped.

‘They’ve got nothing to replace it with’

Democrats are pouncing, warning of major disruptions in healthcare if Republicans repeal with no substitute at the ready.

“They’ve got nothing to replace it with. The reason they don’t is because it’s hard,” said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “They’ve had seven years to figure out how to replace Obamacare. That they have nothing - nada, bupkis, zero - to put in front of the American people as a replacement should show how bankrupt this idea is.”

FILE - The HealthCare.gov 2017 home page, featuring President Obama's signature health care initiative, is seen on a laptop in Washington. Obamacare, as it is also known, has broadened the opportunities for Americans to buy private health insurance and dramatically reduced the number of people who lack coverage.
FILE - The HealthCare.gov 2017 home page, featuring President Obama's signature health care initiative, is seen on a laptop in Washington. Obamacare, as it is also known, has broadened the opportunities for Americans to buy private health insurance and dramatically reduced the number of people who lack coverage.

Rather than repealing Obamacare, Democrats say Republicans should work with them to preserve and improve the law. Failure to do so, according to Democrats, means Republicans will be fully and solely responsible for any negative consequences going forward.

“They [Republicans] want to repeal it and then hang it on us [Democrats],” Schumer said. “Not going to happen. It’s their responsibility, plain and simple.”

Republicans counter that Obamacare is already in a death spiral of higher costs and dwindling insurers, and that disruptions in healthcare coverage were inevitable even if Congress did nothing.

“The law is failing as we speak,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “We need to reverse the damage that has been done. Then, once we repeal this law, we need to make sure there is a stable transition to a truly patient-centered system.”

Trump echoed that message on Twitter.

“[M]assive increases of ObamaCare will take place this year and Dems are to blame for the mess. It will fall of its own weight,” the president-elect wrote.

In a barb aimed at the new Senate minority leader, Trump also tweeted, “Don’t let the Schumer clowns out of this web…”

Hours later, Schumer responded, saying, “Republicans should stop clowning around with the people’s … health care."

Republicans can use their House majority to repeal Obamacare anytime they schedule a vote. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are crafting ACA repeal as a budgetary item, which would make it subject to a simple-majority vote and prevent Democrats from using a procedural blocking tactic known as a filibuster.

VOA's Katherine Gypson and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

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