WASHINGTON — Top Republicans are starting to worry about their health care rallying cry "Repeal the bill." It just might singe GOP candidates in November's elections, they fear, if voters begin to see benefits from the new law.
Democrats, hoping the GOP is indeed positioning itself too far to the right for the elections, are taking note of every Republican who pledges to fight for repeal. Such a pledge might work well in conservative-dominated Republican primaries, they say, but it could backfire in the fall when more moderate voters turn out.
At least one Republican Senate candidate, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has eased back from his earlier, adamant repeal-the-law stance. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which fiercely opposed President Barack Obama's health legislation, now urges opponents to pursue a "more effective approach" of trying to "minimize its harmful impacts."
For Republicans, urging a full repeal of the law will energize conservative activists whose turnout is crucial this year. But it also carries risks, say strategists in both parties.
Repeal is politically and legally unlikely, and some grass-roots activists may feel disillusioned by a failed crusade.
"It's just not going to happen," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said of repeal in a speech Wednesday. "It's a great political issue," he said, but opponents will never muster the 67 votes needed in the 100-member Senate.
Over the next few months, Democrats say, Americans will learn of the new law's benefits, and anger over its messy legislative pedigree may fade.
Republican leaders are moving cautiously, wary of angering their hard-right base. In recent public comments, they have quietly played down the notion of repealing the law while emphasizing claims that it will hurt jobs, the economy and the deficit.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the committee responsible for electing GOP senators this fall, said in an interview, "The focus really should be on the misplaced priorities of the administration" and Congress' Democratic leaders.
Asked if he advises Republican Senate candidates to call for repealing the law, Cornyn said: "Candidates are going to test the winds in their own states. ... In some places, the health care bill is more popular than others."
Three weeks ago, Cornyn told reporters he thought GOP Senate candidates would and should run on a platform of repealing the legislation.
Cornyn and others increasingly are focused on several corporations' claims that a provision of the new law that cancels a tax benefit will hurt profits and hiring. This approach places a greater premium on pivoting to the economy instead of dwelling on the legalistic process of trying to repeal the complex law.
"The health care debate provides a natural segue into talking about the economy and jobs," said Nicklaus Simpson, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference, a policy group.
Obama said last week he would relish a Republican bid to repeal the new law.
"My attitude is, go for it," Obama said in Iowa on Friday. "If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest."
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said his team began pressing Republican candidates months ago to state whether they support repeal of the health care legislation. Most of them have, and Democrats plan to use it against them this fall.
"You never want to wage a campaign telling voters you want to take something away from them," Menendez said.
In Illinois, where there's a spirited battle to fill the Senate seat Obama once held, Kirk recently said he would "lead the effort" to repeal the measure. But on Tuesday, when asked repeatedly by reporters whether he still wants it repealed, Kirk would say only that he opposes the new taxes and Medicare cuts associated with the law.
In Delaware, Rep. Mike Castle is one of the few top Republican Senate candidates who has declined to pledge to fight for the health law's repeal. Christine O'Donnell has made it central to her underdog bid to deny him the GOP nomination.
"We must repeal this health bill horror," she said in a statement, assailing Castle's "cynical refusal to fight" for that cause.
The conservative Club for Growth is on her side. It launched a "Repeal It" campaign in January, and is urging supporters to back only those candidates who make the pledge.
Menendez said candidates seeking the GOP nominations in many states "are facing tremendous pressure from the tea party, from the party base" to embrace a position that could hurt them when more independent and moderate voters turn out in the general election.
He said Democrats will ask these GOP opponents why they want to restore insurance companies' ability to deny coverage to people with medical problems and to young adults who otherwise can stay on their parents' health plans until age 26.
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, doesn't think Menendez's plan will work.
"If Democrats genuinely believe this is a winning political issue for them in November," Walsh said, "it's obvious they haven't learned a thing from their losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts."
Those losses – in two governors' races and a special Senate race – occurred before the health bill became law, and Democrats predict a dramatically different landscape by November. Unsavory dealmaking and arm-twisting, which Democratic congressional leaders used to pass the measure without a single GOP vote, will soon be forgotten, these strategists say.
The GOP candidates who have embraced repeal-the-bill pledges all over the country are counting on them to be wrong.
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Nashville contributed to this report.