(Corrects paragraphs 26, 29 to show that adult children can
remain on their parents' health plans until age 26)
* Republicans to mix repeal push with healthcare
* Democrats could attack court majority
* Battle looms over preexisting conditions
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, June 19 Eric Cantor pulls no punches
about what Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives will
do to "Obamacare" if the Supreme Court leaves any of President
Barack Obama's healthcare reform law intact.
"We're going to take a bill to the floor that calls for the
total repeal of Obamacare," the House majority leader said in a
nationally televised press conference this month.
Why? "So that we can start over and we can tell the American
people: we're on your side," the Virginia Republican explained.
"We care about your health care, we want quality care and
affordable prices for as many Americans that are there looking
for that to happen."
What might sound like music to some voters' ears is also
part of the political dance that Republicans and Democrats have
started as they await a landmark ruling on the 2010 healthcare
reform from the Supreme Court within the next two weeks.
In an election year, the political stakes are high on an
issue which, many polls show, has divided the nation.
How the court's decision is framed politically, whether by
the Democrats and Obama or the Republicans and their presumptive
nominee Mitt Romney, could sway wavering independent voters that
each side probably needs to win the Nov. 6 election.
Obama and Democrats might stand to gain electorally from the
ruling even if it overturns part of his landmark policy
But up to now, Republicans have dominated the political
message on healthcare with calls to "repeal and replace" the
law, condemned by conservatives as a government intrusion into
the lives of private citizens that will only waste taxpayer
money and drive healthcare costs higher.
The repeal vow seems to be resonating among voters angered
by a provision known as the individual mandate, which would
require most Americans to obtain health coverage by 2014.
After about a year when polls showed Americans pretty evenly
divided on healthcare, surveys may have begun to sway the
Republicans' way. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed
nearly 68 percent want at least some of the law overturned.
Given that, congressional Republicans including Cantor are
unlikely to wander far from the repeal message. Some worry that
the attack strategy could suffer if the party tried to forge a
detailed plan of their own, an effort that could also show
disunity within Republican ranks.
Senior Republican House aides say between now and Election
Day, leadership will focus on expressing support for general
"principles", their basic ideas for replacing Obama's reform.
"I would expect that you'd see that the day the Supreme
Court announces its decision," said Senator John Barrasso, a
physician who chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
Republican plans include purchase of insurance across state
lines, creation of new insurance pools by civic organizations
and other groups, insurance portability for people who change
jobs, limiting malpractice lawsuits and wellness incentives.
Romney himself, in a tight battle with Obama for the White
House, has provided little more than general outlines for a
"consumer market" healthcare system.
After 26 U.S. states and an independent business group asked
the high court to overturn the law, the justices have three
basic choices: uphold it, strike down selected provisions or
overturn the entire legislation.
Legal experts say the court is least likely to kill the
whole law, an outcome that would damage Obama and strongly
reinforce Republicans' claims that the lengthy 2009 healthcare
reform debate was a costly distraction from the more important
priorities of the economy and jobs.
Striking down the whole law could help Obama energize his
base of voters. But the effect would likely be less favorable on
independent voters, who could be swayed by Republican
counter-claims that such a court ruling proves Obama's policies
"Democrats would not be able to resist the temptation to
attack the court as an instrument of a conservative effort to
undo not just the Obama administration but 75 years of American
history dating back to the New Deal," said William Galston of
the Brookings Institution.
A ruling that upholds the law would make Obama and the
Democrats uncontested winners by sweeping away allegations that
the law is unconstitutional and potentially undermining the
credibility of Republican attacks in the minds of voters.
It would also give Obama a stronger hand against Romney, who
oversaw a similar state reform law as governor of Massachusetts
but who has denied that the same plan can work nationwide.
Analysts say the court could also help Obama if it were to
strike down only the individual mandate. Its disappearance would
make coverage for some uninsured people more expensive. But
politically, it could protect the president and his party from
the sharpest Republican attacks by removing the feature that
voters find most objectionable.
"There'd be a problem for Republicans, because the 'boogey
man' would be gone," said one Democratic adviser.
REPUBLICANS AND INSURERS
Democrats are already seeking to cast Republican calls for
repeal of the healthcare law as a partisan defense of an
insurance industry with campaign donations that favor
Republicans over Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin, according to the
nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks
Republican lawmakers and senior aides say they could be
ready to put forward "remedial" legislation to allow millions of
people already receiving benefits to continue for a time.
Those could include 60,000 people with preexisting
conditions now covered by a reform program, senior citizens who
receive help paying for prescription drugs and young adults
allowed to stay on their parents' plan until age 26.
"Those kinds of things, if they're to be affected, ought to
be affected in a way that makes for a smooth transition for
people," said Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and physician
who heads the House Republican Policy Committee.
But Republicans would have difficulty extending those
advantages to the general populace because of opposition from
conservatives including Tea Party members who reject any
suggestion of adopting provisions of "Obamacare."
Three leading health insurers - UnitedHealth Group Inc
, Humana Inc and Aetna Inc - have decided
to retain some of the Affordable Care Act's more popular
provisions including low-cost preventive services and a measure
allowing adult children to remain on their parent's health plans
until age 26.
But Republicans would still have to address protections for
those with preexisting conditions.
In a filing, the administration has advised the court to
strike down popular protections including the one for
preexisting conditions if justices do away with the individual
mandate. That is because without a mandate to require younger
healthier people to buy insurers, companies could face financial
risks from large numbers of sicker, older consumers.
Some Republican aides said that fixing the law would be the
responsibility of Democrats who crafted the legislation and
control both the White House and Senate.
But the preexisting conditions protection is extremely
popular with voters, favored by 85 percent of Americans,
according to CBS and the New York Times.
Conservatives who object to adopting the protection for all
with preexisting conditions say Republican leaders have already
assured them that any action would be done narrowly for an
estimated 60,000 people already receiving coverage under the
Affordable Care Act.
"They went out of their way to tell us that they were
completely committed to full repeal," said Dean Clancy, vice
president for healthcare at grassroots lobby group FreedomWorks,
which has been a driving force behind the Tea Party movement.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)