By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A month after Republicans rallied around offering an alternative to “Obamacare” in an election-year move to broaden their appeal to voters, divisions are surfacing over the issue in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The often-fractured Republicans, who hold a majority in the House, ended a retreat outside of Washington on Jan. 31 delighted that they had settled on a positive agenda for 2014 that centered on replacing President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law, which has had a troubled rollout.
The new strategy was put together amid concerns within the Republican Party that simply voting to repeal Obamacare, as they have done more than 40 times, would not be enough to carry them through November’s congressional elections.
House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, told reporters on Thursday that it was important for Republicans to come up with “better solutions” on healthcare.
But Boehner would not commit to putting a Republican alternative to a vote this year. Pressed on his plans to move legislation, he said the party would continue discussions on replacing Obamacare and seek member input. “We’re going to go through a lot of ideas,” Boehner said.
Republicans say Obamacare, passed in 2010, relies too heavily on mandates and results in too much government interference in the marketplace.
The law requires most Americans to buy insurance, offers subsidies to help low-income people receive coverage and sets minimum standards for coverage. It aims to dramatically reduce the number of Americans who lack health insurance policies.
Disagreements over what bill or bills to bring to the House floor were on display on Thursday during a panel discussion on the future of U.S. healthcare that was sponsored by several conservative groups, including the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who heads a large group of conservative House Republicans, made a spirited pitch for passing a comprehensive bill that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with new limits on medical malpractice suits and expanded access to health savings accounts.
More than half of the House’s 232 Republicans are sponsoring the bill that also would allow people to buy health insurance across state lines and take other steps that Democrats have criticized as insufficient to meet patients’ insurance needs.
Republican Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, an obstetrician and leading voice in his party’s healthcare debate, countered Scalise, saying, “The big-bill concept is one I don’t support.”
Instead, Burgess said, he would like to see more targeted bills move through the House that address the most pressing problems stemming from Obamacare. Larger issues, he said, such as Obamacare repeal, might be best postponed until after this year’s congressional elections or even the 2016 presidential election when Republicans might be in a stronger position.
“Washington is pretty unpopular right now. I don’t think you have the political capital to spend in one lift,” he said in a telephone interview, referring to Scalise’s comprehensive bill.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who has close ties to the House Republican leadership, told Reuters on Wednesday that “there is an awful lot of political impetus” for taking action on healthcare, given how controversial Obamacare has become.
Voters, Cole said, want Washington to do something to address an issue that has become one of the most hotly debated in decades.
When members of Congress visit their home districts, Cole said, “Constituents ask them, ‘What are you doing about it.'”
Nevertheless, Cole acknowledged that passing an Obamacare replacement in the House, which likely would be rebuffed by the Senate, would be “tricky” given the intricacies of healthcare and the varying views among House Republicans.
On Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is scheduled to convene a meeting of committee chairmen to discuss a way forward.
Republican lawmakers attending last month’s retreat said there was spirited applause when Cantor said he would schedule a floor vote this year.
But as he has seen in the past, bringing rambunctious Republicans together on a bill can be a difficult task.
Last year, Cantor spearheaded a move to advance legislation to help immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. A year later, that legislation has not been unveiled, much less scheduled for a vote in the full House.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan and Mohammad Zargham)