Obamacare is Probably Safe, But It's Not a Slam Dunk

| Mon Mar. 17, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

I was chatting with a friend this weekend about what Republicans will do if they manage to win total control of the government in 2016. Will they abolish the filibuster and repeal Obamacare? I think the odds are low. At a guess, I'd put the chances of winning total control at p=20%, the conditional odds of abolishing the filibuster at p=50%, and the conditional odds of then repealing Obamacare at p=50%. (Why so low for repeal? Because by 2017 there are going to be a lot of people benefiting from parts of Obamacare; at least a few Republicans will recognize that you really can't repeal just the unpopular bits; and the health care industry will have spent billions of dollars committing itself to operating within the framework of the law.) So that's about a 5% chance that Obamacare dies in 2017. Not zero, but not very significant either.

But what about 2015? What if Republicans win the Senate later this year? Paul Waldman surveys the landscape and notes that House and Senate Republicans are offering very different campaign visions of what to do about Obamacare:

See the difference? The senators accept that the ACA is law and are thinking about how they’d like to change it. The House members are coming up with another way to make a futile, symbolic shaking of their fists in the general direction of the White House. And this may offer a clue to how legislating would proceed in a Republican Congress. The House, still dominated by extremely conservative Republicans for whom any hint of compromise is considered the highest treason, could continue to pass one doomed bill after another, while the Senate tries to write bills that have at least some chance of ever becoming law.

And that would be just fine with Barack Obama. If he’s faced with both houses controlled by the opposition, there’s nothing he’d rather see than them fighting with each other and passing only unrealistic bills that he can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.

Allow me to be a bit more pessimistic. Even if they lose the Senate, Democrats will still have the filibuster available to them, and they'll use it. And as Waldman says, Obama can veto anything he doesn't like.

But there are two wild cards here. First, the usual way that you get difficult provisions passed is by tacking them onto must-pass legislation. Pentagon appropriations bills are the traditional favorites. Depending on the provision, this might require monkeying around with the reconciliation rules, but Republicans have few scruples about that. So the odds are that we'll end up with yet another series of showdowns. Maybe not huge debt-ceiling style showdowns, but big fund-the-military type showdowns. And the question is who wins.

And that brings up the second wild card: will Democrats stay united in defense of Obamacare? After watching Dems scatter like frightened children over the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division, and then scatter again when the NRA started mau-mauing them over Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General—well, you have to wonder, don't you? Add in the fact that Democrats have been running away from Obamacare for months, and it's hardly unrealistic to think that they might be less than adamantine when it comes to a showdown over protecting Obamacare while Fox News is pillorying them nightly as playing politics with our brave troops in order to save a failed health care policy.

As it happens, I'd say the odds of caving in are fairly low. Even if Republicans win the Senate, they'd need eight or nine Democrats to defect in order to break a filibuster. And Obama isn't running for anything. He can afford to hold out.

Still, it's not a slam dunk. Republicans won't be able to repeal Obamacare if they win the Senate later this year, but there's a chance they could do it some damage. It all depends on how willing Democrats are to defend their principles. Unfortunately, that's always a thin reed.

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