WASHINGTON-Republican lawmakers quickly took the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the law covering national healthcare to survive and turned it into what may become the GOP's biggest rallying cry heading into the November elections.
"The Supreme Court just woke up a sleeping giant," said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., shortly after the high court ruled 5-4 to allow key provisions of the law to stand, including the individual mandate requiring all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty to the federal government (see "The decision," by Emily Belz). "The elections just changed. The election just rolled back to 2010 because it was driven by Obamacare. It is back in play."
While the ruling disappointed Republicans, lobbying groups, and the 26 states that brought their case against it to the Supreme Court, it also gave them court sanction to say what Democrats have long suppressed-that the cost of the plan represents one of the largest tax hikes in history.
Schweikert and other Republicans in Congress stressed that the fight over the healthcare law has returned to where it began-the political arena, where voters may have the final say on the law's fate. The court in its ruling confirmed that the government has the power to tax and spend, but it also confirmed that voters have the power to respond at the ballot box if they think such measures have become too burdensome or extravagant.
"Obamacare was bad policy yesterday. It's bad policy today," said Mitt Romney after the ruling. The GOP presidential challenger, standing in front of the U.S. Capitol, just blocks from the Supreme Court, pledged to repeal the healthcare law on his first day in the White House if elected.
"Obamacare was bad law yesterday. It's bad law today," Romney continued. "This is a time of choice for the American people. Our mission is clear: If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we have to replace President Obama."
With constitutional questions out of the way, the tax hikes surrounding the healthcare law will become the centerpiece of Republican attacks on the legislation going forward. The justices ruled to allow the law's requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine because they defined it as a tax that Congress had the power to levy.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance said Thursday's ruling now makes the healthcare law the largest tax increase in American history, with it nearly doubling new taxes from $940 billion to $1.76 trillion.
Voters should expect Republican lawmakers to mention this numerous times in stump speeches across the country in the coming months, especially since Obama stressed two years ago during the debate over the healthcare bill that the mandate was not a tax.
"The president of the United States himself promised up and down that this bill was not a tax," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor Thursday, offering one of the earliest glimpses of Republican talking points on the ruling. "This was one of the Democrats' top selling points because they knew it would have never passed if they said it was. This bill was sold to the American people on a deception."
Republicans will also highlight the growing concern among business leaders over the healthcare law's impact on the economy and job growth. Romney, in his brief speech about the ruling, highlighted a Chamber of Commerce survey in which three-quarters of business leaders surveyed said the healthcare law makes it less likely for them to hire people.
Social conservatives already have begun efforts to stress the ways the healthcare law is entangled with abortion providers and how it could trample on the conscience protections that are provided to individuals and groups who may object to some services on religious grounds. Christian Medical Association director David Stevens warned that forcing employers and individuals with faith-based convictions to subsidize abortion or life-ending contraceptives would lead to "huge faith fines on those of us who resist."
Republicans hope these arguments will fire up the conservative base in much the same way they did in 2010 when Republicans made historic gains in Congress.
"The court's ruling doesn't mark the end of a debate," McConnell said. "It marks a fresh start on the road to repeal."
The Republican-led House agrees with McConnell. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced Thursday that the House will hold another vote to repeal the healthcare law on July 11. The vote will be symbolic, as the Democratic-led Senate will not conduct any votes against the law.
The House passed such a repeal in one of its first acts after Republicans took over the majority in January 2011. Then a parade of freshmen lawmakers fulfilled campaign promises by voting to get rid of the law. Now they will get a second chance to rally their conservative base heading into a fall that, thanks to the Supreme Court, may look a lot like 2010.