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New 'productive' Congress takes a vote ... to repeal Obamacare

Why Tuesday's Obamacare repeal vote is more important than the previous 55

Just the other day, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was telling Bret Baier of Fox News that the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill was "trying to get off to a fast start here."

He explained, "The American people elected a new Congress. They want results."

A couple of minutes later, he observed that among the first orders of business for the new results-oriented Congress would be a vote to repeal Obamacare. That vote is taking place Tuesday, as we write. It's unfolding strictly along party lines. It's the 56th repeal vote. It is preordained to pass in the results-oriented House but not in the results-oriented Senate. Even if it did, it would be vetoed by the results-oriented president.

So why bother? "We have 47 new members of Congress on the Republican side," Boehner told Baier, "who have never had a chance to cast their vote to repeal Obamacare."

In other words, the House is treating U.S. healthcare policy with as much seriousness as it would treat a vote to name the marbled murrelet the national bird. 

But as Greg Sargent of the Washington Post observes, the repeal vote this time is less of a laughing matter than ever. That's because the Supreme Court has on its docket a lawsuit that could eviscerate the law in three dozen states. (For our background reporting on the case, see here and here.)

An adverse court ruling in the King vs. Burwell case could overturn insurance subsidies for more than 5 million people in those states, crash their individual health insurance markets and wind up costing hospitals and other providers billions of dollars. It could be addressed by simple congressional action or by a relatively painless deal, along the lines we outlined in November, as was endorsed in December by former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott.  

The court will hear oral arguments in the case next month, with a ruling expected in July.

The court's decision late last year to take up the King case, despite a sizable school of thought that the plaintiffs' underlying argument is legally groundless, has left the impression that its ultimate ruling may turn on politics, rather than legal precedent.

It has also placed congressional Republicans, for whom opposition to the Affordable Care Act is a litmus test of party loyalty, in a box. If they fail to address in advance the consequences of the court's overturning ACA subsidies, a court majority may conclude that the consequences are just too dire, and uphold the subsidies.

But signaling to the court that it can overturn subsidies in 36 states without causing too much pain and suffering requires voting effectively to save Obamacare, which most Republicans appear loath to do.

What the GOP really needs is a workable, internally consistent consensus healthcare program of its own. That means a program that would preserve, among other benefits favored by the vast majority of Americans, the ACA's protections for people with preexisting medical conditions, its opportunities to purchase affordable health plans, and its encouragement -- mandate or not -- for healthy people to carry insurance.    

The conservative proposals tabled so far don't achieve all or any of these goals, or simply return the U.S. health insurance system to its detested past of worthless insurance at high prices, under a new guise. (Don't be fooled by nostalgia for the pre-Obamacare era; people hated their health plans in the old days.) 

All this points to why Tuesday's repeal vote represents a dereliction of duty on a higher level than the 55 votes that came before. The stakes are higher now, and as Boehner himself told Bret Baier, the public expectations are higher. This meaningless, useless vote is merely a reminder, as Greg Sargent writes, "that the only consensus GOP position on health reform is to blow up Obamacare and replace it with nothing."  

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