WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama vowed to protect the core elements of his health care reform law after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) pledged to attack it anew next year, in light of big Republican gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Republicans will take control of the Senate in January, adding it to the majority they have had in the House since 2011 -- during which time they voted in more than 50 instances to kill Obamacare. The party's opposition to Obamacare is virtually unanimous.
In remarks at a White House press conference Wednesday, Obama expressed openness to small changes to the Affordable Care Act, but pre-emptively rejected any Republican proposals that would undermine the law, which remade the health insurance market and has extended health coverage to millions of previously uninsured people.
"On health care, there are certainly some lines I'm going to draw," Obama said. "Repeal of the law I won't sign. Efforts that would take away health care from the 10 million people who now have it and the millions more who are now eligible to get it, we're not going to support. "
Obama specifically declared he would not consider doing away with the law's individual mandate, which requires most Americans to obtain health care coverage or face tax penalties. Polls show this to be the most unpopular part of the Affordable Care Act, and it was the subject of a constitutional challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the policy in 2012.
"The individual mandate is a line I can't cross," Obama said.
Obama's comments appear to leave only a small opening for soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to make modifications to the Affordable Care Act over the next two years, and they won't squelch Republican zeal for undoing or severely damaging the law.
"We are, I think, really proud of the work that's been done," Obama said. "If, in fact, one of the items on Mitch McConnell's agenda and John Boehner's agenda is to make responsible changes to the Affordable Care Act to make it work better, I'm going to be very open and receptive to hearing those ideas. But what I will remind them is that, despite all the contention, we now know that the law works."
The tea party wing of the Republican Party will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal of Obamacare, an objective McConnell acknowledged is all but impossible so long as the man whose name it carries is president.
"He's still there," McConnell said at a news conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on Wednesday. "The veto pen is a pretty big thing." Before the elections, McConnell suggested he may employ a parliamentary tactic known as budget reconciliation to dismantle Obamacare, which would require only 51 votes as opposed to the 60 needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Congressional Democrats used this mechanism to pass Obamacare in 2010 with zero GOP votes.
McConnell nevertheless emphasized he favors repealing the law outright, and said Republicans stand united in opposition to Obamacare. "It's no secret that every one of my members thinks that Obamacare was a huge legislative mistake," he said.
Short of achieving repeal, McConnell promised to take aim at a handful of specific provisions of the Affordable Care Act. "There are pieces of it that are deeply, deeply unpopular with the American people," he said.
McConnell said Republicans would seek to scrap the individual mandate -- which Obama won't support -- a tax on medical device sales, and a rule requiring companies with 50 or more employees to offer health benefits to anyone who works at least 30 hours a week or pay penalties to the government. Other elements of the law also could be targeted for changes.
Obama wouldn't comment on a reporter's question about whether he would agree to eliminating the medical device tax. Obama also hasn't said whether he would be willing to accept changes to the so-called employer mandate, but he has twice delayed implementation of this part of Obamacare, which was supposed to take effect this year but now won't fully be in place until 2016.
More people oppose the Affordable Care Act than support it, with 43 percent holding an unfavorable view of the law compared with 36 percent who see it favorably, according to an October poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The same survey, however, revealed more than two-thirds of Americans believe Congress should work to improve Obamacare.