GOP's last bullet in healthcare reform battle: public opinion

Republicans have ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Senate healthcare reform bill during the past two days. They hope to capitalize on public doubts about healthcare reform.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (C) speaks about healthcare flanked by fellow Republican senators at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday. Republicans hope that public doubt will see more success in killing the healthcare bill than the GOP party has.
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Debate on the Senate’s healthcare reform bill is likely to end in the first hours of Monday morning, but Republicans are not planning on going quietly into the night.

Along with two feet of snow, Washington has gotten a fresh blast of partisan rhetoric since Democrats nailed down their crucial 60th vote Saturday morning.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said the bill was “an absolute outrage being perpetrated on the American people.”

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Referring to the deal that won the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, which includes the federal government picking up Nebraska’s Medicaid expenses, Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina said: “You have to compliment Ben Nelson for playing the price is right.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina mocked President Obama’s campaign slogan – “change we need” – saying the healthcare bill was built on “backroom deals … amounting to bribes.” He added: “Is that change?”

Pique with a purpose

Washington is no stranger to pointed partisan rhetoric, but in this case, it serves a purpose merely throwing verbal tomatoes at the political winners. Though Republicans have no means to influence one of the biggest pieces of legislation Washington has seen in decades, polls suggest they have American public opinion on their side.

It might be too late to leverage Americans’ doubts into a movement to stop healthcare reform. Democrats are moving at such speed precisely to maintain their momentum. But with the turn of the year, it is not too early to begin thinking about the 2010 midterm elections, and Republicans are hoping to make Mr. Obama pay a political price for a classic piece of inside the Beltway dealmaking.

Virtually from the beginning of the process, Republicans have been frozen out of the healthcare reform negotiations.

The only concerted effort by Democrats to court Republican votes – the version of healthcare reform that emerged from Sen. Max Baucus’s Finance Committee – won only Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, who has since dropped her support of the Senate bill.

Playing to public opinion

The result has left Republicans with little to do but throw grenades at the majority as it crafted healthcare reform behind closed doors.

But that could pay dividends. Since July, a greater percentage of Americans have disapproved of how Obama has handled heathcare than approved, according to Pollster.com, which averages several major polls to mitigate potential bias.

Currently 52 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s job performance on healthcare, while 42 percent approve, the largest negative gap since Obama took office, according to Pollster.

Democrats are banking on the fact that those numbers are based on the lack of any concrete results, and the numbers will improve once a bill is passed. Republicans, with their fresh volley of abuse, are seeking to connect healthcare reform with a deeper American concern about Obama’s tendency to cast government as the great problem-solver.

A Dec. 16 poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found that only 37 percent of respondents said they expected the quality of the new healthcare system to be better than the current one.

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