While fellow Dems say ‘bring it on,’ Schumer tries to take health care off the table entirely

Chuck Schumer, with Kirsten Gillibrand. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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While some of his fellow Democrats dare Republicans to run against the president's health care plan, Chuck Schumer is arguing that the Supreme Court's verdict, either way, ought to make it a non-issue.

At an outdoor press conference in Washington yesterday, after the second day of oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, Schumer quoted a passage from a "summary of the Senate's health care law."

"Quote: 'Requires each citizen or lawful permanent resident to be covered under a qualified health plan or equivalent health care program,'" he said. "In other words, each citizen is mandated to have health insurance."

But it was a trick:

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"Now I just want to make one clarification," Schumer said. "This is indeed from the Senate health care law, but it's not from the Affordable Care Act. It's an excerpt from the Senate Republicans' health care proposal from 1993."

Schumer was harking back, very deliberately, to time when Republicans (he rattled off senators Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar and Bob Dole as the bill's co-sponsors) once backed the individual mandate, which is arguably the single greatest point of contention in the Obama plan.

"The flip-flop on the individual mandate is the prime example of their willingness to oppose anything this president proposes, simply because he proposed it," Schumer said. "Because it was their idea."

Schumer also tried to yoke the issue to the Republican Party's presumed standard-bearer this year.

"There's no question that the health care law Mitt Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts is the same one that President Obama passed at the federal level," Schumer said.

"Now that the mandate is unpopular with conservatives, Romney is trying to disown what he did in Massachusetts. Well, Mitt can run but he can't hide.

"No matter what he tries to say now, Mitt Romney is a walking talking amicus brief in favor of the president's health care law. If he tries to make it an issue in a debate with President Obama, it's just going to confirm that he's the Etch a Sketch candidate. He should just admit that it was his plan all along. If Mitt Romney is the nominee, in effect health care will be off the table as an issue."

Schumer, it should be noted, had cautioned President Obama against undertaking the massive health care overhaul, for fear of how it might play to the middle-class voters that Schumer has always proudly focused on.

Last year, when the court first agreed to hear the case, Schumer told me he thought the timing would be a "win-win" for Democrats, because it would either settle the issue, by giving the law the imprimatur of a conservative court, or, if it struck the bill down, that it would "be gone as an issue." 

But there appear to be some differing political interpretations among the Democratic caucus.

Appearing with Schumer at yesterday's press conference was Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who said if the court struck down the mandate, "I suspect it will be a major major issue in the elections, congressional and presidential, this fall."

And Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa went a step further, saying he was even looking forward to it.

"Maybe I'm just one person saying this, but the more the Republicans, and the candidates they have for president, are talking about repealing our health care bill, I say give 'em more rope," he said. "Maybe I should buy their ads for them.

"You know, let them go out and talk about it because the American people now are seeing the benefits of the health care bill we passed and they don't want it taken away from them. So I say to the Republicans, make our day."

Schumer nodded politely in the background.