Mitch McConnell's office: On second thought, he's willing to try to repeal ObamaCare with just 51 votes

Follow the bouncing ball. Two years ago, after the Supreme Court upheld the ObamaCare individual mandate, McConnell said, “The chief justice said it’s a tax. Taxes are clearly what we call reconcilable. That’s the kind of measure that can be pursued with 51 votes in the Senate.” Aha! A way to get rid of O-Care that would be immune to a Democratic filibuster without taking the momentous step of nuking the filibuster altogether. A Republican-majority Senate could simply use reconciliation, the same procedure used by Democrats in 2010 to pass the law, to un-pass it. Why, Robert Reich and his friends at MoveOn are already on guard for this sinister possibility, having suffered a collective brain injury that prevents them from remembering how lefties used the same means to get ObamaCare enacted. All we need is 51 votes!

Then, a few days ago, McConnell replied to a question from Neil Cavuto about the prospects of repeal by noting, “It would take 60 votes in the Senate. Nobody thinks we’re going to have 60 Republicans.” Say what? I thought we only needed 51 votes. Granted, Obama’s going to veto the repeal bill even if McConnell manages to pass it, but if you’ve got a means to get it on his desk, why not use that means and force him to pull the trigger? Why allow Democrats in the Senate to protect Obama by filibustering repeal?

Conservatives were angry after the Cavuto interview so now here’s the inevitable walkback. We’re back to 51 votes for repeal:

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he would be willing to repeal Obamacare with a simple majority if he takes over as majority leader in January, his spokesman told the Washington Examiner on Thursday…

“Leader McConnell is and has always been committed to the full repeal of Obamacare, and he’ll continue to lead efforts to repeal and replace it with patient-centered reforms that enable greater choice at lower costs. He knows it won’t be easy, but he also believes that if Republicans are fortunate enough to take back the majority we’ll owe it to the American people to try through votes on full repeal, the bill’s most onerous provisions, and reconciliation,” McConnell spokesman Brian McGuire wrote in an emailed statement…

It remains an open question as to how much of the law could be repealed through the complicated reconciliation process. For instance, the law’s spending provisions could probably be repealed this way, but regulations that aren’t directly related to the budget likely couldn’t be.

So there you go. But wait — why would McConnell have gotten cold feet about reconciliation in the first place? Presumably it’s because he thinks it’s silly to waste Senate time on a cumbersome process like that when there’s zero chance that the bill will become law. His 2012 comments about the mandate being a tax and therefore susceptible to a simply majority vote were made before the election that year; he was imagining using reconciliation to pass a repeal bill that could be signed into law by President Romney, not one that would be instantly vetoed by President Obama. Once Romney lost, reconciliation made no sense. But to righties who distrust McConnell and the wider congressional GOP leadership, especially with immigration still kinda sorta on the table before 2016, his willingness to use reconciliation to finally land a repeal bill on Obama’s desk is a litmus test of how serious he is about pushing conservative goals now that he’s setting the agenda. Especially since everyone expects McConnell and Boehner to become more timid legislatively once primary season begins and Republican presidential candidates will be forced to defend moves made by the GOP Congress on the trail.

Could be there’s another reason McConnell doesn’t want to push repeal too hard, though: As lefty Jon Chait notes, ObamaCare may be unpopular in polls but repealing the law is also unpopular. Kaiser Family Foundation has been asking people all year whether they’d rather see Congress “improve” the law or repeal it altogether. That split was 58/35 back in April; this month it was 64/33. Besides, if the first order of business for the new Republican Senate in January is spending weeks on the intricacies of reconciliation for a bill that Obama insists from day one will be vetoed summarily, Democrats will use it as evidence that this is just “party of no” redux, the GOP wasting time on trying to obstruct Obama’s agenda even when they know they’re powerless to succeed in their obstruction. That’s why McConnell would rather stick to the 60-vote threshold and let Senate Dems filibuster an O-Care repeal bill. It’ll be over quickly and he can say he gave it the old college try before moving on to more serious business. Maybe not anymore, though. He’s got to prove something to his base now.