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Health care amicus brief latest example of GOP’s small-tent politics

Republican legislators put an exclamation mark on their week by announcing plans to join 26 states that are claiming that federal health care reforms signed into law last year are unconstitutional.

Republican legislators put an exclamation mark on their week of small-tent politics by announcing this noon that they have filed an amicus brief supporting 26 states that are claiming that federal health care reforms signed into law last year are unconstitutional.

Oh, what a week it’s been for the GOP.

They’ve pushed an amendment through the Senate that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman. They’ve pushed their photo ID amendment. They’ve passed legislation that would limit abortion. They’ve weakened gun laws, much to the chagrin of police officers and county attorneys.

And now, today’s big announcement: an amicus brief going after the nation’s new health care reform law.

Think back a few months ago, only a short time after Republicans had swept into control of the House and Senate.

Agenda has shifted
“I am a social conservative, but we’ve had a conversation with the caucus,” Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said at the time. “They ran on the budget, the economy and jobs. We talked about how this is not the time to be messing around [with social issues]. We’re going to be unified on that.”

Not only is it clear that the Republicans have long forgotten that focus, but it’s also growing more evident that they’ve got troubles within their own caucus: Who’s in charge? Such leaders as Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers? Or a combo package of social and fiscal conservatives, many of whom are in their first terms?

In the last few days, some of the most fiscally conservative members of the caucus have started wearing little penny lapel pins. Those are to signify “not one penny more” than $34 billion in the final state budget settlement.

Even if there are cooler heads in the official Republican legislative power structure, it’s clear there’s a real fear of taking on those fiscal conservatives.

Obviously, there’s not much heart for slowing down the agenda of the social conservatives, either.

And now, today, this strange announcement, made by Reps. Doug Wardlow of Eagan and Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake as well as Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen. The move is supported by 92 Minnesota Republican legislators who have signed onto the amicus brief opposing “Obamacare’s usurpation of state sovereignty.”

Rep. Doug Wardlow
Rep. Doug Wardlow

On the surface, this may appear to be merely a symbolic bow to the issue that created the Tea Party and helped lead to November’s takeover of the Legislature. The brief is filed with the 11th Circuit of the Court of Appeals. North Carolina legislators joined with the Minnesota Republicans in opposing provisions of the federal health care act.

But it’s possible to see more than symbolism in this action.

With only nine days left in the session, this action seems to create another huge obstacle between the governor, who embraces the federal health care reforms, and House and Senate leaders who tonight are to reconcile in conference committee a Human Services bill that will be filled with language and policy opposing all aspects of the federal reforms.

The health care issue doesn’t just divide DFLers and Republicans.  There are aspects of the program that even divide Republicans and some of their most ardent supporters.

For example, the hard-line Tea Party members of the new majority don’t want anything to do with “insurance exchanges” that are of fundamental importance to both state and federal reforms. (Exchanges are supposed to be one-stop shopping areas for people looking to purchase insurance.)

Business groups support health exchanges
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership want the exchanges for the state.  Some members of the caucus, therefore, want the exchanges. But are they willing to cross over and vote with DFLers?

So rather than becoming clearer, the plot is becoming thicker.

At today’s news event, the Republican legislators insisted that their fight against federal health care wasn’t just some sort of frivolous trip down strange political lanes.  

Yes, the big issue is the U.S. Constitution and state sovereignty.

“We all take an oath to defend the Constitution of the country and the state,” said Wardlow.

He said if the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of the federal health care reform mandates, “the state legislatures might as well fold up shop and go home. We’d no longer have the power to do anything.”

But the three Republicans also claimed that this fight is also about the state budget.

Federal health care reforms ultimately will be hugely expensive for Minnesota, they argued.

DFLers took an opposing view, claiming that already Dayton’s embrace of aspects of the federal reforms will save Minnesota “$1 billion in the next couple of years.”

But mostly DFLers took shots at the focus of the GOP in recent days.

“We’ve seen a failure of leadership to come together with a joint budget proposal,” said Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth.

It does seem that the Republicans have headed in directions they once vowed they wouldn’t head. But it’s hard to know if that really matters to them.

Jim Meffert, the failed DFL candidate in the race against incumbent Erik Paulsen in the 3rd Congressional District, noted that DFLers and Dayton, as well as the GOP-led Legislature, are in vastly different places than in the years when Pawlenty was governor and the DFL ruled in the Legislature.  

“There was a fundamentally different dynamic at play,” said  Meffert.  “Pawlenty didn’t want government to do anything. If nothing happened, he won. Dayton wants government to accomplish things. If nothing happens, he loses.”  

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.