Republicans took control of Congress on Tuesday promising to whittle down Obamacare but still struggling to figure out how far to go — and whether any of their efforts can succeed with President Obama still in the White House.
Even the small tweaks the GOP has planned for the near term face opposition, including a White House veto threat on a bill to roll back the part of Obamacare that defines a full week’s work as 30 hours rather than the traditional 40 hours.
But Republicans want to have bills ready in case a Supreme Court decision on Obamacare subsidies expected this summer throws the issue back to Congress.
On Tuesday the House unanimously passed a bill aimed at trying to help veterans get jobs by exempting those still covered by military-related insurance from Obamacare’s threshold for businesses. Employers with fewer than 50 workers don’t face the mandate to provide coverage.
The chamber will follow it up this week by voting to define full-time work under Obamacare as 40 hours instead of 30. At least two Senate Democrats have backed an identical bill in the upper chamber, an early boon for Republicans who took control of both chambers Monday and have pledged themselves to sober and transparent leadership.
“I think you make the changes that you can, and you lay the groundwork and hopefully win the presidential election next time. Then I think we’ll be in much better shape,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, looking ahead to the 2016 presidential contest.
Yet Mr. Cole said the GOP has made a mistake by failing to coalesce around an alternative to Obamacare.
The party is sitting on proposals from Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, the Republican Study Committee and a blueprint forged last year by three GOP senators, but none of them have momentum, and the party hasn’t put any of them up for a vote.
Some Democrats say Republicans are unable to agree among themselves, so they’ll never be able to reach across the aisle either.
Lining up votes to chip away at Obamacare “is a lousy way to begin the Congress,” said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. “If you really want to begin on a note where we’re going to try to develop consensus and work together, I would have begun with some less controversial items than the ones they’ve lined up.”
The Republicans’ 2016 timetable could be upset by the Supreme Court, which is hearing a case later this year on whether the government can continue to pay subsidies to customers in states that rely on the federal health exchange. Without the subsidies, customers in roughly two-thirds of states could be unable to afford their plans.
“If [Republicans] are able to build some bipartisan momentum for changes to the law now, it will help them make broader changes if the court ends up voiding broad swaths of the law with its decision,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who advised 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on health policy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said there is a “better than 50-50” chance the justices strike down the subsidies and knock the law off-kilter, meaning the GOP needs to present an alternative. Asked if they’ll be ready, he said: “Don’t know.”
The Affordable Care Act continues to poll poorly. But the second go-around for enrollment on the exchanges has avoided major technical glitches.
And Republicans will need to grapple with budget implications of their changes, since even modest tweaks would cost the government billions of dollars. That’s true of the bill to define the work week at 40 hours.
“It is an extremely expensive proposal,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-most-powerful Democrat.
“Many of us — I didn’t say all of us — on the Democratic side are committed to the survival of the Affordable Care Act,” he added. “It’s one of the most important things I have voted for in my terms in the House and Senate.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who teamed with Republicans to back the 40-hour legislation and frequently breaks with the White House, said Monday he has no desire to scrap the health law but wants to make changes.
“I’m looking for every repair I can,” he said.
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.