WASHINGTON – House Republicans are united as ever in their election-year opposition to "Obamacare," but they're increasingly divided over their promise to vote this year on an alternative to it.
The disagreement comes amid a shifting political calculus around President Barack Obama's health care law. Millions are enrolled for medical insurance through the law's exchanges, and an all-out repeal has become less practical and popular. Some Democrats have begun promoting the measure in campaign commercials, and some Republicans are treading more carefully in belittling the program.
At a recent closed-door House Republican caucus meeting, several conservatives pressed GOP leaders over the pledge Majority Leader Eric Cantor made in January that House Republicans would rally around an alternative to "Obamacare" and pass it this year.
"We said at the retreat in January we were going to do this. Well it's June and we still haven't done it," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he told Cantor during the meeting last week. "It's moving at a snail's pace. ... We want to be for something."
Roe said he got little reply beyond polite attention. Cantor's spokesman, Doug Heye, said, "Majority Leader Cantor continues to work towards bold legislative solutions to replace 'Obamacare.'"
Behind the scenes, lawmakers and aides say, powerful committee chairmen with jurisdiction over the issue have been unable to agree over how to proceed. Some have even begun to suggest publicly that this year is not the time to vote on an alternative that likely would die in the Democratic-controlled Senate or face a veto threat from Obama.
That argument looks especially compelling in light of Republican hopes of taking over the Senate in November.
"We know that we have a Senate that's not going to do much," Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said. He also pointed to the dwindling number of legislative days this year.
"There's not a lot of time but we're exploring a lot of different options," Upton said. "We haven't come to a conclusion yet."
Lawmakers are home in their districts this week listening to what voters are saying about the health care law, which as a political issue is getting increased competition from the post-mortem on the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, the Taliban prisoner exchange and treatment delays and reports of falsified records at VA medical facilities.
The House already has voted more than 50 times to repeal or excise all or part of the health care law. But it has been two months since the last vote attacking a fundamental provision of the law, and no further votes on the law have been scheduled.
Even ardent opponents now question the need to repeal the law in full. Repeal remains the official GOP position but is widely acknowledged to be impractical now that the initial problems with the enrollment website have subsided, people have signed up and popular provisions such as a ban on denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions have taken hold.
"I don't think anybody's talking about repealing the entire bill," said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who is a physician. "There are clearly sections of the bill ... that people are saying, 'OK, these are actually good things.'"
GOP pollster David Winston, who advises House Republicans, said "Obamacare" has remained unpopular, and he doesn't expect that to change before the November midterm elections. He said the challenge, and opportunity, for Republicans is to come up with solutions to new issues voters are experiencing, such as unexpectedly high deductibles.
"This plan has created a whole new raft of problems, and what they want to see is those problems resolved," Winston said. "And so the idea of shifting back to the previous set of problems versus the existing set of problems is not necessarily where they're focused."
The changing dynamic is evident on the campaign trail, where some Democrats have run ads publicizing their support for the law or attacking their opponents for resisting it. Some Republicans, meanwhile, are beginning to focus on fixes they would make to the law, rather than repeal. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has come under criticism from Democrats in his re-election campaign after vowing to repeal "Obamacare" while suggesting that Kentucky's state health insurance marketplace, which was created under the law, could remain.
On Capitol Hill scant consensus has emerged. Roe and other conservatives have rallied around a bill to repeal "Obamacare" and replace it with a series of traditionally Republican initiatives, including expanding access to health savings accounts and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines. Other lawmakers favor their own approaches. Some want a single bill, others a series of them.
Even if GOP leaders did put a bill on the floor, there's no guarantee their fractious caucus would hold together to pass it. Last year, a revolt by conservatives forced GOP leaders to abandon efforts to pass a bill expanding insurance access for people with pre-existing conditions.
"There's a number of aspects we've been meeting on in the health care team, talking about those elements that will be in there," Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said. "Do I think we have enough to have a vote on it before October? I don't know if it will be on the schedule."