One California House Republican is “listening to his constituents” about health care reform. Another is “still studying” the issue. A third, one GOP press secretary said, is “reviewing the text.”
The one thing most aren’t doing is committing themselves to supporting a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that’s a top priority for the Trump administration but is particularly unpopular in California. The reluctance of California Republicans who fear losing re-election over the bill is a serious problem for national GOP leaders – who are desperate for a win and can only afford to lose 23 votes from among their 238 members in the U.S. House.
At least nine of California’s 14 House Republicans so far have declined to publicly endorse the latest version of the American Health Care Act, the work-in-progress designed as the GOP alternative to the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
And while House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, California, is trying to drum up support for the complex measure, he and other Republican leaders must make the sale to California lawmakers who are under enormous pressure at home not to support the Obamacare repeal bill.
Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento, said there are “a ton of land mines” for California Republicans whose constituents either benefit from Obamacare or dislike Trump. Several of those lawmakers are marked as prime targets for the Democrats seeking to win control of the U.S. House in next year’s election for the first time since 2010.
“California Republicans aren’t like most Republicans; the issue is exceptionally more difficult for them. Republicans tend to represent two kinds of areas in California: One is kind of the rural poor, where a lot of folks are beneficiaries of some of the Obamacare programs,” Madrid said. “The other areas ... we call them country club Republicans, who are are a little more moderate, a little less ideological and where Trump underperformed considerably.”
California embraced Obamacare more than any other state, particularly through the expansion of the Medi-Cal program for low-income Californians. More than one in seven people in some of the California Republicans’ districts receive direct assistance from Obamacare.
“Typically the Republicans count on lower election turnout among unemployed and the disadvantaged people in their communities. If suddenly people who sat on the sidelines get motivated in the next election and the Democrats put a lot of money in and recruit good candidates, then you could have some upsets,” said Stanford University political scientist Bruce Cain.
Seven California Republicans represent districts won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year. Just one of them, Rep. Mimi Walters of Orange County, has publicly backed the latest version of the GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. She is now facing attack ads from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Orange County, which voted Democratic in November’s presidential election for the first time in 80 years, will be a key battleground in the race for control of the U.S. House. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and other lawmakers from the area remain uncommitted to the GOP health bill.
“I think that ultimately, in the long-run, this could really be career suicide for political people who vote for this,” Kurt Bardella, Issa’s former spokesman, said Sunday on CNN.
Republican skeptics of the GOP health care bill also include Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, whose San Joaquin Valley districts have a combined 220,000 people dependent on Obamacare.
“I’ve literally had hundreds of emails and even phone calls asking about the Affordable Care act, “ Denham said in a video posted to his Facebook page on Saturday. “I am a no on health care reform until we have a legislative or administrative fix that addresses access.”
The caution extends even to some Republicans who represent the reddest of districts. Voters in conservative Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s sprawling, rural Northern California district favored Republican Trump over Clinton last November by 20 percentage points. But more than 100,000 of LaMalfa’s constituents receive direct benefits from Obamacare, according to the consumer group Health Access California, and he’s yet to endorse the GOP bill.
“The congressman will withhold judgment until we have an official bill on the floor for a vote,” said his spokesman, Parker Williams.
Complicating the Republicans’ task is the apparently growing popularity of the law they want to replace, particularly in California. Forty-seven percent of U.S. residents surveyed last month for the Kaiser Family Foundation’s health tracking poll voiced a “generally favorable” view of the health care law, while 41 percent expressed disfavor. Californians surveyed in January were even more likely to support the law, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found.
The GOP caution further underscores the difficulty that Republicans have had in making the transition to governing, after eight years in which they could unite in decrying Obamacare without having to craft legislation that might actually become law.
On Jan. 19, 2011, for instance, every House Republican, including every California GOP member, voted for a measure bluntly called the “Repeal the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act,” The bill was less than three pages in length, repealing the 2,400-page health care law in its entirety but offering no alternative.
“I was so proud to be able to take a major step to change the irresponsible and anti-job ObamaCare law,” Denham said around the time of the 2011 vote, adding that the Affordable Care Act “is killing much-needed jobs by imposing prohibitive burdens on small businesses and American families through runaway spending, raising taxes, and mandates on small businesses.”
By some counts, it was the first of some 50 times the Republicans would vote to repeal or revise Obamacare. None succeeded, except as a way for Republicans to express themselves.
Now that Republicans are shooting with real bullets instead of blanks, they are finding it far trickier to aim.
“Congress obviously wasn’t ready to begin the process of repealing Obamacare a little more than a month ago,” Vice President Mike Pence said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “But I think we’re close.”