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GOP Health Stumbles Upset Party Base -- WSJ

22 Jul 2017 6:32 am

Interviews with voters and leaders in three states raise a red flag for midterm prospects
By Janet Hook and Jim Carlton 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 22, 2017).

The GOP drive to remake the U.S. health-care system, which fueled the party's rise to power in the past eight years, is becoming a political liability for Republicans, whose inability so far to pass a sweeping health bill in the Senate has angered many conservatives and could weigh on the party in next year's elections, interviews with voters and political leaders in three states show.

While Senate GOP leaders are preparing a long-shot rescue effort next week, the collapse of legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would mark a failure to deliver on a longstanding promise to ditch the Obama-era law, due to differences among lawmakers about what a replacement plan should look like.

"We're already five years too late," said Don Tatro, executive director of the Builders Association of Northern Nevada. "I am disappointed it's gone this long."

At the same time, some senators have been wary of backing a bill that would sharply curb Medicaid spending and boost the ranks of the uninsured. The pressure is especially intense for the party's two most vulnerable Senate incumbents up for re-election in 2018, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who have been targets of President Donald Trump for crossing him on health care and other issues.

For senators in safer seats, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the political consequences are less immediate. Mr. Cruz is considered likely to win re-election, but even he is worried about blowback from Republicans angry that the party has not accomplished more with the broad power in Congress and the White House that voters have given it.

Republicans hold a 52-48 margin in the Senate and a more comfortable margin in the House.

"The hard-fought gains of the last eight years have come to naught because a handful of Republican senators don't see that they're part of a team," said Paul Simpson, chairman of Texas' Harris County GOP, who said there is growing concern that GOP discontent would depress turnout during the 2018 midterms.

"This is a classic case of the perfect destroying the good," Mr. Simpson said.

Mr. Cruz, in an interview, said he believed he was in a strong position in Texas, but he warned that the consequences of failure to deliver on the party's signature health-care promise could be "catastrophic."

"We could lose control of both houses of Congress," he said. "There will be severe electoral consequences."

Strategists from both parties believe that health care will be a far more important issue in the 2018 midterm elections than the controversy over allegations that Mr. Trump's presidential campaign had improper ties to Russia. In a Bloomberg News survey this month, 35% of Americans listed health care as the top issue facing the country, ahead of jobs, Russia or any other topic.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Moscow has denied any meddling, and Mr. Trump has called the investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia a "witch hunt."

The Republicans most at risk of backlash from the GOP base may have some political breathing room: Those who have most openly broken from the party to derail Senate action -- including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia -- are not up for re-election until 2020 or 2022.

For senators facing voters next year, another political danger looms: They risk provoking the vengeance of Mr. Trump, who has demanded that the Senate try one more time next week to revive legislation to overhaul the ACA. "Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you're fine with Obamacare," Mr. Trump said this week at a White House meeting with Senate Republicans.

Mr. Heller, of Nevada, is the only Republican running in a state that Mr. Trump lost in 2016, suggesting he may be vulnerable next year. Mr. Heller was a critic of an early version of the Senate repeal-and-replace bill that stalled last week, but has been mum about next week's expected vote on the GOP effort to repeal the ACA.

Back home, Mr. Heller is in a political pickle. On the one hand, his criticism of the Senate health bill has angered some Republicans and independents who voted for him.

"Here's another one of those guys who goes to Washington and discovers governing is hard," said Fred Weinberg, 65 years old, of Washoe Valley, Nev., who owns radio stations in the conservative rural parts of the state.

But from other quarters, there is home-state pressure to keep parts of the ACA, because it allowed Nevada to expand Medicaid, which would be rolled back under the Senate bill. That's a big reason the state's popular GOP governor, Brian Sandoval, has criticized the Senate health-care bill.

Democrats have promised to use the issue against Mr. Heller.

Meanwhile, Mr. Flake is considered potentially vulnerable, because Mr. Trump won Arizona by only four points in 2016. Mr. Flake has been at odds with the president on many occasions, opposing elements of his immigration policy and criticizing his behavior during the campaign. That could make Mr. Flake vulnerable to a conservative or Trump-backed primary challenge.

"I feel that he definitely needs to follow President Trump's lead," said Marcus Huey, 63, who works in the real estate industry in Phoenix and is active in Republican Party politics. "If he doesn't...it will harm his chance in both the primary and the general."

But as with Nevada, Arizona is also enjoying the benefits of the ACA, because the state's Republican governor and state Legislature passed a significant expansion of Medicaid in 2013.

Mr. Flake said in an interview said that he is pulled in two directions, wanting both to provide relief to people facing high premiums but also to keep support for the many Arizonans now covered by Medicaid.

"We've been saying we're going to give some relief," he said. "Politically, it doesn't help any of us if we can't get it done."

Democrats haven't yet found a top-tier candidate to run against Mr. Flake, but are making their views known. "If we just repeal the Affordable Care Act, we will go back to the profit-driven insurance companies, making it impossible for people to be insured," said Kelly Strachan, 56, a Tucson Democrat and college Spanish instructor.

Having made his name as an unyielding conservative, Mr. Cruz has played a different role in the Senate lately, trying to craft a compromise version of the bill that can break the deadlock in the Senate. His supporters say that could help broaden his appeal to voters who have believed he was too ideologically rigid.

Mr. Cruz is taking nothing for granted. "There's a real frustration that voters are feeling as to why Republicans can't come together and get the job done," Mr. Cruz said. "I believe we can."

--Alejandro Lazo and Dan Frosch contributed to this article.

Write to Janet Hook at janet.hook@wsj.com and Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 22, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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