WASHINGTON - Top Republicans are starting to worry about their health care rallying cry "Repeal the bill." It just might singe GOP candidates in November's elections, they fear, if voters begin to see benefits from the new law.
Democrats, hoping the GOP is indeed positioning itself too far to the right for the elections, are taking note of every Republican who pledges to fight for repeal. Such a pledge might work well in conservative-dominated Republican primaries, they say, but it could backfire in the fall when more moderate voters turn out.
At least one Republican Senate candidate, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has eased back from his earlier, adamant repeal-the-law stance. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fiercely opposed President Barack Obama's health legislation, now urges opponents to pursue a "more effective approach" of trying to "minimize its harmful impacts."
For Republicans, urging a full repeal of the law will energize conservative activists whose turnout is crucial this year. But it also carries risks, say strategists in both parties.
Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and some grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade.
"It's just not going to happen," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said of repeal in a speech yesterday. "It's a great political issue," he said, but opponents will never muster the 67 votes needed in the 100-member Senate.
Over the next few months, Democrats say, Americans will learn of the new law's benefits, and anger over its messy legislative pedigree may fade.
Republican leaders are moving cautiously, wary of angering their hard-right base. In recent public comments, they have quietly played down the notion of repeal while emphasizing claims that the law will hurt jobs, the economy and the deficit.
Asked whether he advises Republican Senate candidates to call for repealing the law, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the committee responsible for electing GOP senators this fall, said: "Candidates are going to test the winds in their own states. . . . In some places, the health care bill is more popular than others." Three weeks ago, he said he thought GOP Senate candidates should run on a platform of repealing the legislation.