By signing health-care reform into law on March 23, President Obama did more than just make history. He set up a dramatic test of political will (and presidential salesmanship) over the next eight months as the midterm elections approach.
Republicans, in Washington State and around the country, think they can profit from demonizing this new law—which extends coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, reduces the deficit, and reins in insurance companies—by riding anger at "Obamacare" right back into legislative majorities. They wasted no time, for example, in making it an issue in the race for the open seat of retiring Washington congressman Brian Baird (D-3), saying Baird's vote for health-care reform would doom the chances of any Democrat gunning for his post. At the same time, Washington's Republican attorney general, Rob McKenna, eyeing a run for the governor's office in 2012, loudly boasted about joining conservative attorneys general around the country in a court challenge designed to take the law down.
"This unprecedented federal mandate, requiring all Washingtonians to purchase health insurance, violates the Commerce Clause and the 10th amendment of the U.S. Constitution," McKenna said in a statement on March 22.
That's highly debatable—"We require all Americans to pay for Social Security and to pay for Medicare," retorted Democratic state party chair Dwight Pelz. "Is McKenna going to challenge those two programs also?" But with McKenna and about a dozen other AGs pushing the issue, it's going to be debated in the courts, perhaps for years to come.
The more immediate debate is how far McKenna can actually go with his lawsuit given that Governor Christine Gregoire has made clear she hates the idea. "I completely disagree with the attorney general's decision," said Gregoire, who previously was the state's attorney general for nearly 12 years. "He does not represent me."
Nor does McKenna represent around 6,000 people who, as of press time, had joined the rapidly growing Facebook page "Washington Tax Payers OPT OUT of Rob McKenna's lawsuit." The page was a sign of how the Republicans' endless "kill the bill" strategy could actually end up backfiring—especially in this blue state—by energizing Democrats and others around a message of, as Pelz succinctly put it, "hands off our health care."
Viet Shelton, spokesman for Gregoire, said that if McKenna does go ahead with his suit, the governor will join the legal action herself—representing the opposite position. As for whether she can actually force McKenna to drop the legal action, Shelton said it's uncharted territory. Expect it to be quite thoroughly charted in the near future.
Behind all of this political fuss is the new law itself. Democrats—who learned the hard way, during all the insanity over "death panels" and federally funded abortions last summer, that Republican misrepresentations can be distractingly explosive—now must clearly explain and forcefully defend the new law. Especially because polls have repeatedly shown Americans are wary of it overall but highly supportive of its parts (in other words, they are confused).
That's why Obama, after his March 23 signing ceremony in D.C., was headed off to Iowa to explain the bill's provisions (which he also explained during the signing ceremony). It's also why Pelz and Gregoire slammed McKenna so hard. They all know that if the public doesn't start understanding and supporting this new measure in greater numbers (over the chatter about the lawsuits), Democrats are in trouble—and, conversely, that if they can defeat Republican fearmongering on the issue, things look a lot brighter.
So what's actually in the bill?
A lot, and Washington Democrats who voted for it in Congress were eager to explain key provisions that take effect this year.
Representative Adam Smith (D-9) hailed the bill's deficit reduction ("$130 billion in the first 10 years and $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years," he said) and cheered the new rules allowing young people to stay on their parents' insurance up to the age of 26.
Representative Jim McDermott (D-7) is happy to say good riddance to the "egregious" and often-abused practice of rescission. "Insurance companies said rescissions were designed to help them root out policyholders who had lied on their applications," McDermott said. "But instead they ended up allowing the industry to drop people with chronic illnesses who needed expensive care. In one of the most appalling examples, a nurse in Texas said she lost her coverage after she was diagnosed with breast cancer because she failed to report that she had acne."
Representative Jay Inslee (D-1) lauded the new prohibition against lifetime limits on coverage. "Annual and lifetime caps to benefits were a tool used by insurance companies to deny coverage to Americans when they needed it most," Inslee said. "Prohibiting insurance companies from charging patients catastrophic out-of-pocket costs will ensure Americans have the access to care they need without the fear of going bankrupt."
And Representative Rick Larsen (D-2) said that as a result of the new law's tax credits, small businesses will "no longer have to choose between health care and hiring."