WASHINGTON -- Republicans were publicly outraged the Supreme Court again found the Affordable Care Act constitutional, but there was also a deep sense of relief that they wouldn't have to deal with twin problems of ending health care for millions in red states or coming up with a replacement.
"I was just up on the floor and I saw Paul Ryan," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), referring the the GOP chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. "He was lamenting this decision with a very broad smile. Republicans have just been saved from themselves by the Supreme Court of the United States."
Indeed, if the court had thrown out a key part of the law, Republicans who control Congress would have been faced with figuring out how to replace or fix a law that is providing subsidies for some 7 million Americans and benefitting many millions more.
Ever since the law passed, Republicans have been promising a replacement. It has never materialized. Now it may never have to.
Asked specifically whether he would still move ahead with a new health care plan, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared flummoxed.
"I'm not sure… we'll see," Boehner said in a hemming and hawwing response at his weekly Capitol Hill news conference. "There's been discussion about that, but most of the discussion, so far this year, was if the court ruled against the administration in King v. Burwell, what the response would be. And so that's where most of the conversation was."
Reminded that he had specifically tasked several House committee chairmen with jointly producing a replacement health care law, Boehner again hemmed.
"They've been mostly focused on King v. Burwell, which we know how that turned out," he said. "So now it's time to refocus our efforts."
Similarly, when pressed on when the GOP would be ready to have a vote on an alternative, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) was at a loss.
"I don't know," he said.
It was not immediately clear why crafting a Republican replacement plan depended on the Supreme Court's ruling, except that it would have made such a plan a necessity rather than a talking point about what the GOP would prefer.
Some Republicans acknowledged that their party had not done so well in offering its own solutions, and saw the loss as a chance to step up.
"The Supreme Court is not going to bail out Congress, clearly," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), among the more conservative members. "My concern mainly is after four and a half years, we've had 58 votes to repeal and zero votes to replace. What does a health care plan look like under a Republican majority? We haven't done that yet. Now it's time for Republicans to say, 'What is our solution?'"
Huelskamp and other tea party-aligned Republicans would like to use the budget reconciliation process to repeal Obamacare. That's a process in which lawmakers attach instructions to a budget telling committees to write specific legislation, and that legislation cannot be filibustered in the Senate.
"At the end of the day, it's now time to use reconciliation as promised, and put together a health care plan," Huelskamp said. "It's not easy work, I guess [that's] why for four and half years that's probably why they didn't try it. It's a hard lift."
Congress has already passed a budget this year, however, and it was unclear how such a process would get started, or when.
Boehner did not commit to try such a gambit.
"There's been no decision how to deal, or what to use reconciliation for," Boehner said.
He settled for another ringing denunciation of Obamacare, and another promise to act.
"We're going to continue our efforts to do everything we can to put the American people back in charge of their own health care, and not the federal government," Boehner said.
At least one Republican indicated that a GOP replacement plan would remain analogous to unicorns and leprechauns, at least until 2016.
"Republicans need to make sure they win the next presidential election if they want to change Obamacare, because absent that they're not going to have any chance to do it," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said.
Elise Foley contributed reporting.
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