"They are literally teeing this up as an issue for Democrats for the next year and a half," Sen. Chris Murphy said of the administration's efforts to get rid of the law.

WASHINGTON ― Democrats say the Trump administration will regret taking an extreme position on a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, an issue they say will matter far more to voters in 2020 than anything coming out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans have said for years that the Affordable Care Act ought to be replaced with a free market alternative that preserves some of the most popular elements of the law, such as protections for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing parents to keep children on their health insurance policy until they turn 26 years old.

The repeal-and-replace plan, though, has failed to materialize since Obamacare was signed into law nine years ago, even though the Trump administration has argued in court that the ACA protection for those with pre-existing conditions should be struck down.

On Monday, the Department of Justice asked federal courts to throw out all of Obamacare, not just one part of it, as it had done previously. The turnabout has undercut some of the GOP’s rhetoric regarding the law and has handed Democrats a potent issue for the 2020 presidential campaign.

If the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is weighing the lawsuit, agrees with the government, the matter will almost certainly go before the Supreme Court, which has already turned away two major challenges to the 2010 health care law. With two new Trump-picked justices on the high court, however, there is no telling whether the law would survive a third.

“This move by the Trump administration to take away health care will prove far more detrimental to the administration and the Republican Party than any gains they might have made by the issuance” of Attorney General William Barr’s letter summarizing the findings of Mueller’s investigation, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.

Barr reported in his letter that Mueller had found no evidence of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia. The attorney general also concluded himself that Trump did not obstruct justice in Mueller’s investigation, a conclusion Democrats say he should explain in testimony before Congress.

Even though the Barr letter left Trump critics deflated this week, the Justice Department’s new stance on wiping out the entirety of Obamacare had Democrats licking their chops about an issue that had helped them win control of the House of Representatives last November.

“They are literally teeing this up as an issue for Democrats for the next year and a half. They’re not even making a laughable attempt to save the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters on Tuesday.

“They are literally teeing this up as an issue for Democrats for the next year and a half. They’re not even making a laughable attempt to save the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act.”

- Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

Vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election in 2020, whose seats Democrats need to win in order to take back control of the Senate, are likely to face additional attacks over health care following the Trump administration’s new stance on the lawsuit. But GOP leaders say they have confidence in their members to fend off attacks over Obamacare going into the 2020 election.

“I think this issue is not a new one for any of us,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, told reporters on Tuesday. “I think the administration is still looking to get us to force action up here to give us an opportunity to actually come up with a solution that would be better than what people are dealing with today.”

Republicans came close to sending a bill to Trump’s desk repealing Obamacare in 2017 but came up a few votes short in the Senate. The alternative most GOP senators rallied around at the time, known as Graham-Cassidy, would have effectively ended Obamacare’s insurance protections, according to health policy experts, leading people with pre-existing conditions to face higher premiums. It also would have left tens of millions more Americans without health insurance.

GOP senators facing tough re-election fights in 2020 said they support popular elements of the Affordable Care Act even as they continue to maintain that the law should be repealed ― a delicate rhetorical balancing act that failed to save many GOP members of Congress in the 2018 midterm election.

“I support coverage for pre-existing provisions, and Congress should act to make sure that happens. I think what we need to do is make sure we have affordable health care,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is facing a tough campaign, told reporters on Tuesday.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another vulnerable member, also said Congress needed to come up with a replacement to Obamacare and its protections for pre-existing conditions. But the North Carolina Republican brushed off political ramifications about the Trump administration’s new position regarding the lawsuit, telling reporters on Tuesday he was not concerned about coming Democratic attacks.

Only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted against repealing Obamacare in 2017, criticized the Justice Department’s decision to argue in court that the entire law should be struck down as unconstitutional.

“It is highly unusual for the [Department of Justice] not to defend duly enacted laws, which the Affordable Care Act certainly was. This decision to even go more broadly in failing to defend the law is very disappointing,” Collins said.

Trump, meanwhile, urged Republican senators at a weekly caucus lunch to again embrace the issue of health care ahead of the 2020 election.

“The Republican Party will soon be known as the ‘party of health care,’” the president told reporters without elaborating moments before meeting with GOP senators on Capitol Hill. He did not specify what, if any, legislation he would like to see brought to his desk, according to GOP senators who attended the lunch.

It’s unlikely, however, that a bill repealing Obamacare can get to the president’s desk with Democrats, who support the law, now in control of the House.

Trump may have been referring to another issue with bipartisan support: efforts to tackle rising prescription drug costs. CNBC reported Tuesday that the Trump administration is in early talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) staff about legislation that would do so.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday expressed skepticism about the Trump administration’s willingness to work in good faith on either issue.

“Let me remind you about the Trump campaign for president, in which he said he wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and offer a bill which would provide health care coverage for everybody at lower cost and better quality,” Hoyer said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “As soon as he sends that bill down to the Congress, I’m voting for it. But there has been no such bill coming either from the administration or from the Republicans in Congress.”

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