What Republicans Will Do After Health Care

Sunday was a tough day for the loyal opposition, and you could gauge early on just how hard Republicans took the Democrats' impending win on health-care reform. During ABC's morning political show This Week, conservative political guru Karl Rove whipped out a whiteboard covered in scribbles to dispute the Congressional Budget Office's estimation that the health-care bill will cut the deficit. Debating the issue with President Obama's erstwhile campaign manager, David Plouffe, sent Rove into hysteria: "For God's sake, will you stop throwing around epithets and deal with the facts for once, David!" How the mighty have fallen.

Rove isn't the only casualty. The vaunted tea partiers, who terrified the entire Democratic caucus as recently as last August, spent the day just outside the House chambers, waving every flag they could get their hands on and demanding that representatives "kill the bill." As the House of Representatives moved, vote by glacial vote, to approve the Senate's health-reform legislation and a package of fixes to be approved by the Senate in coming days, the crowd slowly dissipated until only a group of hoarse hardliners remained. By end of the night, nearly all of the remaining demonstrators were pro-reform.

Even the normally laconic Republican leader John Boehner gave a rousing speech before the final vote, shouting, arguing with the chamber's presiding officer over rules, and warning darkly of punishment to come: "We have failed to listen to America … This is the people's house, and the moment the majority forgets it, they are on their way to the minority."

So what do Republicans do now? They claimed that if the bill passed it would "cripple free enterprise" (Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers), "lay the cornerstone of [the Democrats'] socialist utopia on the backs of the American people" (Rep. Devin Nunes), or become "the death of freedom" (Rep. Marsha Blackburn). What do they do the day after freedom dies?

Well, they aren't planning to just accept the actions of the people's duly elected representatives as legitimate—you can't promise Stalin and end up with some health-care co-ops. So they are adopting a new set of tactics.

In the Senate, Republicans are planning to challenge the tiniest details of the final fix that Democrats will pass this week, but they're descending into incoherence. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is set to force his caucus to fight against the fix because it includes cost-saving measures in Medicare, which he once championed, and ends the so-called Cornhusker Kickback, which his party has criticized. And though the Republicans have promised to campaign on repealing the bill, McConnell won’t say what they'll do with health care if his party wins in November.

Unfortunately, that's really the most rational response from Republicans. Republican gadfly Rep. Steve King, encouraging tea-party demonstrators from the Capitol balcony, meditated aloud about a new, better country that would consist primarily of his ideological allies: "If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they'd be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let's hope we don't have to do that!"

Across the Potomac in Virginia, the Republican attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has already announced his plan to challenge the health-care bill in federal court, criticizing the legislation for "its unconstitutional overreach." Though his passion for states' rights is endearing, Cuccinelli doesn't have much of a case for nullifying the law. Attacking Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause, a favorite move of opponents of the New Deal, has consistently failed—even conservative Supreme Court Justice Anontin Scalia concedes the point—and the doctrine of "interposition," offered as justification to block civil-rights legislation, has been discredited for five decades.

So Republicans will try to discredit Democrats by extending this debate through November's midterm elections, but that, too, is a difficult strategy. Republicans could look like sore losers, endlessly complaining about health-care reform—an issue that, it's safe to say, has exhausted the country—while the Democrats move forward on their agenda, from jobs to financial regulation. Meanwhile, Democrats believe the early effects of the bill, including a ban on exclusions for preexisting conditions and tax breaks for small business, will combine with the luster of legislative success to make their plan more popular.

"The Republican Party wants to go out and say to that child who now has insurance or say to that small business that will get tax credits this year … 'You know what, we're actually going to take that away from you,' " David Axelrod, the president's message guru, recently said on Meet the Press. "Let's have that fight. Make my day. I'm ready to have that and every member of Congress ought to be willing to have that debate as well."

The Republicans could be right, of course, that this bill's passage is their ticket back to power. But even if there are short-term political gains for the GOP, one thing is nearly sure: Republicans won't be able to repeal the bill, just as Social Security and Medicare are now sacrosanct when Americans became accustomed to their benefits.

"Regardless of what happens tomorrow, we will be here!" Republican Rep. Jack Kingston promised protestors outside the House. So, too, will health-care reform.