Amid a flurry of official statements declaring shock, outrage, and disappointment after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act's federal insurance subsidies Thursday, Republicans quietly confided they were feeling something else, too: relief.
The fight over whether and how to repair the law could have been a disaster for the GOP. A CBS News/New York Times poll released this week found that 70 percent of respondents wanted the court to keep the subsidies and 64 percent wanted Congress to replace them if the court had struck them down. But Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, had not coalesced around a viable plan to help the millions of Americans who risked losing their insurance if the court swung against the law.
So even though Chief Justice John Roberts wrote another opinion upholding the health-care law, the conservative actually did Republicans a favor. The 6-3 ruling spares House and Senate GOP leaders from having to act. And it liberates Republican primary contenders from having to talk about subsidies. Instead, Republicans can return to the safe ground of "repeal and replace" Obamacare rhetoric rather than having to go down the far riskier road to action.
"They're actually politically helped, perhaps, by the decision," said one veteran House Republican who asked not to be named while discussing the political benefit of a policy loss. Had the court ruled the other way, he said, "it would have put Republicans squarely on the hot seat."
In conversations on the Hill, several Republican lawmakers and aides agreed that while losing the ruling is a major blow, it takes pressure off the party's candidates.
"It probably does," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, who quickly added that "there's not a single Republican that is happy it went this way."
Republican presidential candidates retreated to the safe ground of condemning the ruling and the overall law in broad strokes after the decision was handed down Thursday morning.
"I will work with Congress to repeal and replace this flawed law with conservative reforms that empower consumers with more choices and control over their health care decisions," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is leading the GOP presidential field in recent polling, said in a statement.
Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who is seeking the presidency, said, "I would make it my mission to repeal it, and propose real solutions for our health-care system."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said that the ruling gives Republicans an opportunity to work with a "clean slate" in developing alternative plans for the health care system.
"Ironically, the decision liberates Republican presidential candidates to speak with clarity about what they would do if elected," she said. "THey are unencumbered from commenting on any of the alternative Republican congressional plans prepared in anticipation of a different ruling today. They have a renewed platform to highlight the burdens and unfairness on American families and businesses."
Republican leaders aren't eager for this fight
The best evidence that Republican leaders aren't eager to make Obamacare the central issue of the 2016 campaign may have come from House Speaker John Boehner. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had assigned a task force of Republican committee chairs to propose a fix in case the court struck down the insurance subsidies.
The outlines of that plan were presented to rank-and-file Republicans last week, and Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) said Wednesday that they had been "ready to go" with the plan. But after the ruling, Boehner said there was no reason to push forward with the proposal to replace the existing system with a more conservative mix of block grants to states and subsidies that could be used to purchase a broad range of insurance policies.
"Now it's not necessary," he said, adding that "no decision has been made" on whether to pursue an Obamacare repeal through this year's budget. If Republicans think their replacement plan is better than the current system, why not pursue it?
The obvious answer: Boehner isn't rushing to elevate the fight over Obamacare as the 2016 election cycle heats up.
But Democrats are
Obama raced to the Rose Garden Thursday to endorse the court's decision — and chide Republicans for trying to overturn the law nicknamed for him.
"Today, after more than 50 votes in Congress to repeal or weaken this law; after a presidential election based in part on preserving or repealing this law; after multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court," Obama said, "the Affordable Care Act is here to stay."
And it wasn't just a president who is done seeking reelection who was quick to seek political advantage in the court's ruling.
Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, sent out an email Thursday encouraging supporters to "stand with me on health care."
As first lady, Clinton fell short in her effort to rewrite the nation's health insurance system. But she was a behind-the-scenes bit player in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, providing private counsel to White House aides and encouraging some allies in Congress to vote for it.
"The next president will either protect and expand health care for every American, or undo the progress we’ve made," she wrote.
Conway said it's not a clear victory for Clinton.
"It's a political win for President Obama, but a sticky wicket for Hillary Clinton," Conway said. "She will be forced to support an unpopular law as the focus shifts from its constitutionality to its workability, and may be forced to address Bernie Sanders' call to go even further with a single-payer program."
"Relief on the tactical level"
No one should be confused about the fact that Republicans are upset by the ruling. They fought tooth and nail to stop the law from being enacted, shut down the government in 2013 over their failure to repeal it, and have done everything in their power to show that it's been a terrible law.
But a lot of them weren't looking forward to spending the rest of this Congress talking about how to put Obama's law back together. It would have been a messy process, with no guarantee that they could get a plan through either or both chambers. And, of course, there's little chance that they could have found common ground with Obama to sign their fix.
That is, they were facing a whole lot of work with little likelihood of having anything to show for it at the end of the process — other than yet another highly charged political battle over the same law.
"To a person, we think it's terrible for the country, and we want to see it gone," said one senior GOP aide who nonetheless acknowledged feeling "some relief on the tactical level."