The effort to repeal Obamacare may be headed in the wrong direction.
That it could be so was unthinkable just a few short weeks ago when the GOP triumphantly returned to our nation’s capital with majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate and control of the presidency for the first time since the law was enacted back in 2010.
Since then, Republicans across the nation have consistently proclaimed their opposition to the law and pledged to repeal it the first chance they got.
But with lawmakers huddled in Philadelphia for a three-day retreat to strategize how best to approach the months ahead and the Jan. 27 deadline for a repeal bill to be written slipping by, how exactly the GOP plans to achieve its long-sought goal to reverse Obamacare remains murkier than ever.
This is leading some to doubt whether the GOP is still serious about dismantling the law. For example, Reuters is reporting that prominent portfolio managers on Wall Street are now betting against full repeal and expect instead that the fundamental structure of Obamacare will remain intact.
Given this, President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans should reiterate their commitment to the full repeal of Obamacare. They should also signal their determination to reject Obamacare’s flawed framework and to replacing it with patient-centered and market-based reforms.
And they need to get to work by taking the first step in the process, which should be passing legislation to repeal Obamacare as soon as possible.
Time is running out.
Technically, the end-of-January deadline is not binding in any meaningful sense. Legislation produced after Jan. 27 is still eligible for expedited consideration in the Senate as long as it complies with the reconciliation instructions included in the fiscal year 2017 budget resolution.
Yet the fact that congressional Republicans are unable to meet this deadline suggests that they may be less committed to repealing Obamacare than previously expected.
Moreover, that the House and Senate do not currently plan to take up a repeal bill any time soon provides additional support for this claim. Indeed, lawmakers recently announced a new March deadline that could potentially slip further into April.
Such a delay creates unnecessary logistical problems for the GOP.
Assuming that a repeal bill is ready for floor consideration by the second week of March, at the earliest, leaves just three weeks when both the House and Senate are in session at the same time to repeal Obamacare and begin the process of replacing it before government funding expires at the end of April.
Three weeks may seem like plenty of time to pass a repeal bill. But that doesn’t leave a lot of time for Congress to take up other priorities during Trump’s first 100 days.
For example, work will continue in the Senate to consider and confirm the president’s Cabinet-level nominations, and its members will soon be engaged in an important debate over Trump’s Supreme Court nomination.
In addition, Congress has a limited window in which to disapprove of certain regulations that were finalized during the last few months of the previous administration using the expedited process established by the Congressional Review Act.
Once that window closes, any effort to overturn those regulations will be subject to a filibuster in the Senate.
The fiscal year 2018 budget resolution is also up for consideration during this period. Passing a budget remains an important priority for congressional Republicans to the extent that it provides an opportunity to highlight their commitment to fiscal restraint.
It also constitutes a necessary step in setting up a second reconciliation process in which the GOP hopes to pass legislation reforming the tax code.
More than simply competing with the repeal effort for scarce floor time, passage of the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution also poses an existential threat to the means by which the GOP intends to overturn Obamacare.
Put simply, passing a budget for fiscal year 2018 before the repeal effort in complete will preclude Congress from using the reconciliation process triggered by the fiscal year 2017 budget.
Delaying action on the budget into May or June creates even more problems for the legislative schedule and pushes back consideration of the annual spending bills, supplemental appropriations to fund the president’s border wall, and action on the debt limit—not to mention an infrastructure bill and regulatory reform.
As a consequence, it is difficult to see how Congress can accomplish all of this in three short weeks.
Any further delay also makes it increasingly likely that the repeal effort is ultimately tied directly to the replace debate. At that point, any changes to the existing system would then be considered in the legislative framework established by Obamacare.
There is already evidence that this is happening.
The latest replacement plan floated by some Republicans on Capitol Hill fails to even repeal Obamacare. Instead, it locks it in, giving the law the imprimatur of Republicans long sought by congressional Democrats.
While the proposal does provide states some limited flexibility to design alternative systems, it also preserves the Medicaid expansion. And it does all of this by continuing the same level of government spending and taxation mandated by Obamacare.
Given this trend and the logistical problems created by any further delay in action, the longer Congress waits to repeal Obamacare, the less likely it is that it will actually end up doing just that.
James I. Wallner, Ph.D., is group vice president for research at The Heritage Foundation, overseeing all research papers, projects, and initiatives. Working on Capitol Hill for over a decade, he has written extensively on Congress, parliamentary procedure, the budget process, and political parties.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.