- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2017

The American public remains deeply divided over Obamacare, but only 1 in 5 back a Republican plan first to repeal the law, then to come up with a replacement, according to a timely poll that says most people want Congress to have a firm alternative in hand before it pulls the plug on the existing system.

The findings could boost President Obama and congressional Democrats, who have made defending the law their chief goal this year. But their unity showed some cracks Thursday as more than a dozen self-proclaimed “moderate Senate Democrats” said they would be willing to work with the GOP on fixes to Obamacare as long as Republicans don’t rush a repeal.

Both parties are fine-tuning their messages as they dig in for a protracted battle, hoping to sway Americans who remain conflicted about Mr. Obama’s signature health care law.

Some 49 percent of Americans want the law repealed and 47 percent do not, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. Yet only 20 percent say Congress should vote to repeal the law immediately and work out the details of a replacement plan later.

“There’s a lukewarm mandate for repeal without putting a replacement plan on the table,” foundation President and CEO Drew Altman said in an interview. “We’ve got about half the country that’s not for repealing at all, and another significant chunk that doesn’t want to see repeal to go forward unless they see a replacement plan.”

But there is room for either side to build support. After hearing pro-repeal arguments, the share of the public supporting repeal can grow to as large as 60 percent, while arguments against repeal can decrease support to 27 percent.

Republicans are moving rapidly to set up a repeal and debate a budget resolution that would pave the way for a final vote this year without having to overcome a Democratic filibuster. They already have prevailed in two test votes.

Democrats say they are open to bipartisan reforms to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, but party leaders said they aren’t about to help Republicans repeal the law outright. They said Republicans will pay a political price for the chaos that would result from a repeal.

“Our Republican colleagues have two choices: Either once they repeal, come up with a replacement plan, and we’ll give it a look … or don’t repeal and come talk to us about how to make some improvements. We’re willing to do that,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Moderate Democrats — a handful of whom face tough re-election bids in 2018 — went a step further, saying improvements to the law are needed. In a letter to Republican leaders, they said they could find common ground if the Senate takes a slower pace.

Sen. Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who led the letter-writing effort, called for tweaks, such as letting the federal government negotiate prescription drug prices under Medicare or offering more generous subsidies to entice more people into Obamacare.

But Republicans said those are nonstarters.

“You can’t fix Obamacare by piling on more Obamacare,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Capitol Hill Republicans haven’t said how long it will take to forge their replacement plan, as they wait for the Trump administration to take office.

But the legislating — the repeal and a replacement — will be passed this year, said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, hinting at a faster timeline than some had expected.

He said the replacement will have a phase-in period so consumers, insurers and the health care markets can adjust to the changes. He also bristled at what he called “scare tactics” from Democrats warning that voting for a repeal now will immediately strip people of insurance.

“That ain’t happening. That’s not true,” Mr. Ryan said.

House Republicans might have complicated the effort by deciding to couple legislation targeting Obamacare with an effort to strip taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, resisted a similar effort last year but said Thursday that a decision about the follow-up is premature because the package is far from finished.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, also has concerns about the repeal-and-delay approach. He said Republicans, who hold 52 Senate seats, cannot afford to lose more votes if those lawmakers defect. Vice President-elect Mike Pence holds a tie-breaking vote.

Senate Republicans are sticking together for now, defeating in a party-line vote an amendment from Mr. Kaine that would have made it tougher to repeal Obamacare if it alters the number of people who hold coverage now that the 2010 Affordable Care Act is in effect.

Public sentiment appears opposed to Republican plans for a more limited government role. Only 3 in 10 Americans prefer “limiting federal health spending, decreasing the federal government’s role, and giving state governments and individuals more control over health insurance, even if this means some seniors and lower-income Americans would get less financial help than they do today.”

Meanwhile, 6 in 10 Americans prefer “guaranteeing a certain level of health coverage and financial help for seniors and lower-income Americans, even if it means more federal health spending and a larger role for the federal government.”

“The fact that lot of people didn’t like Obamacare because it represented a lot of things they didn’t like, including the president, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll like a new plan that shrinks the role of federal government and means they may have to pay more for their health care,” said Mr. Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

More than half of Republicans in the Kaiser poll — 53 percent — backed the approach of decreased spending and a more limited federal role.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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