As conservatives hammer Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan on the failures of the federal health care law, her chief Republican rival is getting squeezed from both sides of the political spectrum on the issue.
Thom Tillis, who is leading the GOP’s Senate hopefuls in fundraising and early polling, was criticized in a TV ad earlier this month for wanting to repeal the federal health care law’s more popular items, such as provisions that prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage for preexisting conditions and charging for mammograms.
To rebut the Democrat-aligned group’s attack, Tillis recently showed enthusiasm for an alternative plan put forward by the state’s other U.S. senator, Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, and two other leading lawmakers. Burr’s plan retains some provisions of the federal health care law.
But that stance drew scorn from his Republican primary rivals, forcing the House speaker to walk a narrow political line.
Greg Brannon, who is courting tea party loyalists, has said the Burr plan is “national health care.”
“The (Burr) plan is an attempt to fix Obamacare, but Obamacare cannot be fixed,” he said in a statement. “It must be repealed and replaced with free-market solutions, not with Obamacare-lite.”
In an interview Wednesday after he filed official candidacy papers in Raleigh, Tillis cautiously defended Burr’s plan.
“It’s not a detailed set of legislation; it’s a direction that tries to embrace only a handful of things that Obamacare seems to have right, but takes things in a very different direction, particularly in relation to how people pay for it.”
Tillis has declined to endorse Burr’s plan, but doesn’t have an alternative.
“I don’t think I need to come in with a plan,” he said in a recent interview. “I think we need to take a look at the ones that already exist and build on those.”
Rove: Alternatives needed
Republicans want to make the health care law – particularly its botched debut and plan cancellations – the centerpiece of the U.S. Senate race. Hagan, the first-term incumbent, voted for the Affordable Care Act and recently said she would do so again if given the chance, even though she has voiced concerns about its problems and co-sponsored three bills to modify it.
Americans for Prosperity, a national tea party-aligned group backed by the wealthy Koch brothers, has spent upwards of $8 million to attack Hagan for her stance as recent polls show about 60 percent of North Carolina voters consider the law unsuccessful.
But the focus is also leading to questions about where Republicans stand. And opposition to the new law may not be the full answer.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, who has endorsed Tillis, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “criticizing Democrats for this terrible law is necessary but not sufficient. GOP candidates will need to explain what they would do to replace it.”
The majority of the Republican primary candidates, including Brannon and Mark Harris, want an unconditional repeal and offer few – if any – ideas about a replacement.
Tillis, too, supports a repeal. But his language is more nuanced than his rivals.
“If Obamacare could be repealed I’d vote for it,” he said recently.
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, believes that the federal government should not provide health coverage because it is not delineated in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, he said the issue should be left to each state, though he did not provide specifics about how he would address rising health care costs.
“As a doctor, I can tell you, the solution is to get government out of the way and allow for free market competition, which will cause quality to go up and prices to go down,” he said.
Harris supports abolishing the law, calling it “Obama’s takeover of America’s health care system” and declaring it a “disaster.”
“If I am elected, I will vote to repeal it and defund it at every opportunity,” Harris said in a statement. “It is time for Republicans in Washington to stop talking about how they want to repeal and defund Obamacare and stand up and lead the fight to do so.”
Harris said he supports expanding health savings accounts, cracking down on frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits and allowing the purchase of health care insurance across state lines.
“I support common sense, free-market solutions that do not involve creating a bigger, more bloated federal government,” he said.
Burr plan keeps popular features
The legislation, co-sponsored by Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, drops the requirement that Americans buy coverage, weakens caps on what insurers can charge older people and offers tax credits to small businesses to help with insurance costs.
“It’s a great framework,” Tillis said, “and Senator Burr would be the first to tell you – it is a framework.”
Burr calls his plan “a complicated, multifaceted plan.”
Tillis also is facing criticism from some conservatives for advancing a 2011 measure to create a state-based health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
The measure was first pitched as a way to give the state more control and push back against Washington. Tillis and other leading Republicans later reversed course, dropping the legislation and letting the state default to a federal exchange to avoid the stigma of the health care law.
FreedomWorks, a national tea party group backing Brannon, recently launched a petition featuring a photo of Obama next to one of Tillis, who was labeled a “turncoat” and “fake conservative.”
Tillis said a full reading of his legislative record would show that he pushed another measure in 2011 to compel the state’s attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Then-Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the measure.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good track record of definitively opposing Obamacare in the state of North Carolina,” Tillis said. “We’re doing everything we can to slow it down.”