GOP tries another 'messaging' bill on Obamacare. Why?

This Obamacare bill is expected to make it to President Obama's desk for a rare veto. But some wonder whether such legislation underscores the view that Congress can’t get anything done.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (center), joined by Senate majority whip John Cornyn of Texas (r.) and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, tells reporters Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, that he’s confident he will have enough support for an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, following a GOP policy meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.

This is the week for GOP “messaging bills” in Congress – bills that defund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and that roll back carbon emissions regulations. They won’t become law, but unlike past attempts to strike at President Obama’s priorities, they are expected to make it to his desk for a rare veto.

To some, that may seem like a difference without much significance. Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada describes these “show votes” as a “total waste of time.” But not to Republicans. The moves hold political advantages for them – even if some observers say they could come back to hurt the GOP, or even the greater body politic.

Republicans see the votes as a prime opportunity to excite the base as the country enters an election year. They show Republicans directly confronting the president, getting legislation to his desk that he doesn’t like – something they weren’t able to do when Democrats controlled the Senate last year.

Republicans “can go home and say, ‘This is what we did, and the reason for the failure isn’t that we didn’t try, it’s that the president has a veto. So guys, go win the presidential election, and then some of these things that we want can happen,’ ” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma.

But others view the legislation as fodder for Democrats to take aim at. They wonder whether messaging bills that are of no practical consequence simply turn off voters and underscore the view that Congress can’t get anything done.

Indeed, many GOP supporters themselves have been frustrated by the party's inability to get things done. In last year’s midterms, Republicans ran on promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act and roll back regulations such as carbon emissions at power plants. Voters gave them control of the Senate and strengthened their hand in the House – but nothing seemed to change.

Tea party supporters such as Sylda Nichols, a retiree in Kansas, have seen no difference between a GOP-controlled Senate and one led by Democrats. She and her tea party friends told the Monitor this fall that they want Republicans to fight much harder – to take bills to the president even if he vetoes them.

Her frustration, and that of countless other conservatives, have helped fuel the GOP presidential candidacies of “outsiders” including Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Even with control of the Senate, it’s been tough for Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid blocking action on most bills. But they are expected to do that on Obamacare and Planned Parenthood legislation on Thursday, using a rare procedure known as “budget reconciliation” that requires only a majority vote.

This week, the House passed a rollback of carbon emissions regulations at power plants, following recent Senate approval. They were able to do that through the 1996 Congressional Regulatory Review Act, which also requires only a majority vote.

The utility of these bills for Republicans “is that they are actually doing things the base wants them to do,” says Jennifer Duffy of the independent Cook Political Report. But she sees a potential danger for the GOP.

The measures could hurt Republicans in the general election, Ms. Duffy says. Democrats will say Republicans want to deny nearly 17 million Americans health care (they’re already saying that and are referring to the number of Americans who have signed up for insurance under Obamacare). And the Planned Parenthood legislation “gives Democrats a wide door to bring up the ‘war on women.’ ”

A Rasmussen poll last month shows that despite broad dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act (only 11 percent say the law should stay as it is), half of voters want Congress to go through the law and fix it piece by piece. Only 37 percent think Congress and the president should repeal it and start over.

Polling also shows the difficulty of the GOP approach on the other issues. In a September poll by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans want to maintain funding for Planned Parenthood. And a New York Times/CBS News poll published this week indicates that 63 percent of Americans support limiting greenhouse gases from US power plants.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas is unconcerned. Public opinion favors Republicans when these issues are considered more generally. “Frustration with regulations runs across party lines,” he says, and the population is unhappy with Obamacare for not delivering what was promised. On Planned Parenthood, “their negatives are through the roof.”

Mr. Goeas also suggests that the messaging bills might help assuage the GOP voter frustration that’s stoking the presidential campaigns of Republican outsiders. The debate becomes more about what Republicans are trying to do and Democrats trying to stop, and less about Republicans not getting things done.

Over the years, both parties have engaged in show votes, with Democrats, for example, trying to put Republicans on the record on things like the minimum wage.

“So much of what Congress does, particularly in times of split government, is basically just posturing,” says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

If a party can improve the strength of its posturing, maybe that’s politically helpful, he says. But, he adds, “I can’t imagine that it’s good for the overall reputation of either party, or major figures of either party, to consistently over-promise to their supporters and then under-deliver.”

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