A New Year and a New Congress

The 115th Congress will attempt to shred President Obama’s legacy on healthcare, financial reform and the environment. Democrats need a strong strategy to stop them and protect gains we have made in the last eight years.

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Protecting the ACA, CFPB and environment

They say elections have consequences and we are about to find out how true that is.  Republicans in Congress had a trial run in the last session as they controlled both chambers.  They sent President Obama nine doomed bills with no way to override his veto.  Throughout his presidency, Republicans forced President Obama to govern in a partisan manner by refusing to cooperate in any efforts to pass compromise bipartisan legislation.  Now they are clearly signaling that they will govern through their majority and could care less if they get support from Democrats.  Their incoming president has barely given lip service to uniting the country.  With that combination, it would seem the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank and Obama’s environmental regulation are history.

The silver lining of all of this is that Republicans have spent the last six years with a majority in at least one chamber but were never in a position to be held responsible for anything they did.  They repealed Obamacare dozens of times in the House of Representatives and even sent it to Obama’s desk daring him to veto it.  They knew Obama would never sign away his signature piece of legislation so they were not concerned about the consequences of the incredibly irresponsible legislation they passed.  Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been outwardly giddy about repeal, but they may want to temper their enthusiasm, because it is an honest assessment to say that the dog has caught the car.

It is fair to say that the impact of Republican messaging to shape public opinion against the Affordable Care Act has been impressive.  They have largely kept the focus on the challenges like the botched roll-out of the federal exchange and missed actuarial estimates of consumers signing up.  These very fixable problems in the ACA have overshadowed numerous benefits including keeping dependents on a parent’s plans until age 26, making it illegal to deny coverage for preexisting conditions, and the fact that the uninsured rate in the country has been reduced by over one-third according to Gallup.  The truth is that the Republicans have no replacement plan and tens of millions would lose insurance coverage if they repeal the ACA.

At the moment, it is not even a guarantee that House Republicans can put together enough votes around consensus legislation.  Some want to repeal with no replacement, some want a viable replacement and some want to build a delay into the legislation to come up with a replacement plan.  In any case, the only way Republicans can repeal the ACA is to use budget reconciliation and that bill must start in the House.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that House Republicans coalesce around a repeal plan and send it to the Senate where a simple majority can pass the reconciliation bill and avoid a filibuster.

The fight Democrats now have on their hands is to find three Republicans to vote against repeal.  Traditionally, the top targets would be Republicans in blue states.  That includes Cory Gardner (CO), Susan Collins (ME) and Dean Heller (NV).  Clearly that requires running the table on flipping Republican votes so the battle must be expanded.  Lisa Murkowski (AK) has shown a moderation in the past and senators in some of the states that Trump flipped should be included as well, especially Pat Toomey (PA), and Ron Johnson (WI).  Finally, there are several states with Republican senators that also passed medicaid expansion providing an opportunity to apply pressure from constituents who would lose their health insurance.

Republicans may not be able to whip enough votes to pass a repeal bill without a serious cut to medicaid expansion funding.  The lack of a viable replacement will likely force a compromise by delaying implementation so nobody feels the impact up front.  That said, the fear of people losing their health insurance should not be underestimated and such messaging can create a lot of political pain for senators who might support a repeal with no clear alternative. Before Republicans created the toxic political environment around the healthcare reform, Americans were greatly concerned about the number of uninsured Americans.  This argument needs to be put front and center again.

Republicans seem very motivated to undo the Obama agenda as much as they can and Dodd-Frank is likely another target.  What they hate the most about Dodd-Frank is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  Once again, simplistic arguments of government overreach by Republicans have fed some negative sentiment of this new regulatory body.  Just like the ACA, once Americans learn what they could lose, the CFPB becomes very attractive.  Republicans may have successfully painted Democrats as coastal elites in 2016, but the minute Republicans are perceived as lining up with the interests of Wall Street and Democrats are protecting Main Street, the elite label can shift quickly.  Democrats should follow the lead of progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on this issue.  Even in conservative areas where Trump ran up the score with white working class voters, the Wall Street vs. Main Street message resonates strongly.

Finally, Republicans and Trump will roll back many of Obama regulatory orders on climate change.  In this area, Republicans have benefited mostly because the issue ranks lower in importance to voters compared to other issues.  Republicans are out of step with the public when it comes to the science of climate change.  Most Americans accept scientific conclusions and believe that we need to move forward with the development of clean renewable energy.  Because President Obama was limited to executive action in most cases, Trump and the Congress can easily reverse those actions.  Democrats must align with the scientific community and make it as painful as possible for Republicans.  Most of them hide behind the “I’m not a scientist” excuse, which is more about willful ignorance than a definitive opinion that climate change is a hoax.  If Republicans are going to roll back widely supported moves by President Obama on climate change, then Democrats need to force them to own those decisions and defend increasing a global threat.  Either they have to deny science or admit an uninformed decision.  All in all, a few steps back in the short term may have a long term positive impact of raising the importance of this issue in the minds of the American voter and finally get us on the path to the reductions in carbon emissions that we need to save the planet.

The coming months and years are going to be hard slog for Democrats fighting to protect the gains we have made in the last eight years.  In addition to being out of the majority and no longer having presidential veto power, rule changes in the Senate have made it easier for a majority to move their agenda.  The politics of governing have never been more important.  Democrats need to speak boldly in the coming months and oppose the Trump/Republican agenda where it is most effective.  I don’t agree with an oppose everything approach like the Republicans used against Obama, because Trump is not all that ideological and he can be manipulated (just ask Vladimir Putin).  Trump has boasted about a massive infrastructure project that is simply too large for many Republicans to endorse.  If he really wants to do that, then he will need Democrats on board.  When it comes to Trump, take what you can get even if it means feeding his bloated ego and punish him and the Republicans hard when they try to enact the agenda of the corporate elite.

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