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Republicans walk fine line in battle against healthcare overhaul

The party could benefit in midterm elections, but also risks alienating voters if it can't advance positive ideas of its own. Leaders appear to be rethinking their tactics.

September 12, 2009|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — Republicans have reaped a political windfall from their unflinching opposition to the Democrats' ambitious healthcare proposals: President Obama's popularity has waned, and public confidence in his handling of the issue has eroded.

Some analysts predict that fallout from the debate could push 30 or more House seats out of Democratic hands next fall.

But the GOP faces political risks of its own. Some Republicans worry that the healthcare debate is reinforcing an unflattering image of them as the "Party of No."

The self-described "Party of Ideas" is on the sidelines of a landmark healthcare debate, leaving its leaders to redouble their efforts to avoid seeming like guardians of a troubled status quo.

Conservatives are promoting their own proposals, which are more targeted, such as limits on medical malpractice lawsuits. GOP leaders increasingly emphasize Republican support for new curbs on insurance company practices that penalize people who are or become sick.

At Obama's healthcare speech Wednesday before a joint session of Congress, Republicans waved copies of their own healthcare legislation to counter claims that they had no constructive alternatives.

But few television viewers could tell it was legislation they were trying to display -- let alone what it contained.

The Republican response to Obama's address -- a brief televised speech by Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana -- was overshadowed by one House Republican who heckled the president in an outburst reminiscent of the rowdy town hall meetings that lawmakers confronted in August.

"That doesn't help," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "There's no place for rudeness in either the House of Representatives or in town hall meetings."

"It reinforces the image that we are simply against everything," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

Some Republicans fear that image could hurt the party's chances of defeating Obama's ideas -- and of returning to power in Washington.

"Yelling should not be the new normal," said Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who recently sent out a fundraising letter criticizing his party's leaders for not pursuing a comprehensive GOP alternative to Obama's plan. "People are upset, but they expect leaders to remain calm and find solutions. . . . If you don't have a plan about how to lead, why would anyone give you the majority?"

But other Republicans believe they are on safe political ground even without their own comprehensive healthcare plan. They say the party is tapping successfully into a powerful current in public opinion: fear of big government, anxiety that Congress is reaching too far too fast, and the belief that people with health insurance have a lot to lose from Obama's agenda.

"You never look bad for being the 'Party of No' if you are opposing what people are saying no to," said former Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, who was in the GOP leadership until 1993.

Peter Wehner, a policy analyst and advisor to three Republican presidents, including George W. Bush, said he believed that Republicans could take the same route back to majority status that Democrats followed.

"Democrats rode back to power in 2006 not based on compelling alternatives but because they were ferocious critics of Bush," Wehner said. "I think it is overdone that Republicans have to show they are a governing party."

Still, there are signs that Republican leaders in Congress, since returning from the August recess, have been recalibrating their tactics to put more emphasis on the healthcare changes they support, in addition to lambasting the Democratic ideas they oppose.

"They're trying to make the position known that they're not against reform, and the system is unsustainable," said Gail Wilensky, an economist who served as administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration under President George H.W. Bush.

Republicans say they are doing more than putting obstacles in the Democrats' way.

"I'm a problem solver," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a member of the Republican leadership. He cited GOP support for making it easier for small businesses to provide coverage for employees, allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines, and ensuring that all of the people who are eligible for Medicaid get enrolled.

Obama, he said, was headed in the wrong direction on healthcare.

"I would suggest that the president start over with a step-by-step approach," he said. "We don't do comprehensive well."

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janet.hook@latimes.com

Richard Simon and Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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