WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s decision to ask a federal appeals court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act has given House Democrats a new opening to pursue what they see as a winning political strategy: moving past talk of impeachment to put kitchen-table issues like health care front and center.
The notice to the court, filed late Monday by the Justice Department, could not have come at a more opportune time for Democrats. The finding by Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel, that there was no evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, dashed the hopes of the most partisan Democrats that the House would impeach the president.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who celebrated her 79th birthday on Tuesday — had already planned to move to change the conversation with the unveiling of the Democrats’ own health care plan on Tuesday. The Democrats’ bill aims to lower health insurance premiums, strengthen protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, and ban the sale of what Democrats call “junk insurance.”
The Justice Department’s move gave the unveiling an urgency that not even she could have anticipated.
“The Republicans did say during the campaign that they weren’t there to undermine the pre-existing condition benefit, and here they are, right now, saying they’re going to strip the whole Affordable Care Act as the law of the land,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday, adding, “This is actually an opportunity for us to speak to the American people with clarity.”
The administration staked out its new position in a lawsuit that was filed by Republican attorneys general in Texas and other states after Congress failed in 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but later reduced the law’s tax penalty for people who do not have insurance to zero.
Without a requirement to purchase insurance, they argued, the law could not then insist that insurance companies cover pre-existing medical conditions and a suite of other “essential health benefits,” such as maternity care and prescription drugs.
A judge in Texas agreed and invalidated the entire law, including its expansion of Medicaid and subsidies to help many low- and middle-income people buy insurance. The Justice Department initially said that only parts of the law, including its protections for pre-existing conditions, should be struck down. But on Monday, it expanded to say the whole law should be invalidated.
The Justice Department’s move caught both parties by surprise, and put Republicans in a very awkward position.
“Not only is this a poor political move, this decision hurts real people who will unfairly lose their health insurance coverage as a result,” said Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York. “We need to work to find ways to fix our health care system — not blow it up.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, at first said, “I haven’t read through what they — was it last night?” He then added, “I think the president has always been very clear that he wanted to repeal Obamacare, and to put a system in that actually lowers the cost and protects individuals’ pre-existing conditions.”
Other Republicans were more pointed. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, pronounced herself “very disappointed,” with the Justice Department’s position.
But Trump wholeheartedly embraced the new position on Tuesday, both on Twitter and in the Capitol. “The Republican Party will soon become the party of health care,” he told a throng of reporters and photographers.
Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate health committee, echoed Trump’s message: “We have to become more the party of health care.”
That is not ground the Democrats will easily cede. After months of distracting talk about the Mueller report and impeachment, they are pushing hard to pivot toward the issues that helped elect them — not just health care, but also bigger pay checks and cleaner government.