Republicans who’ve spent nearly a decade trying to dilute and abolish Obamacare have a promising vehicle to finally do so— a legal challenge led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and GOP officials from 19 other states.
Yet the public face of that politically perilous effort won’t be Paxton or any of the other elected officeholders named on the suit.
Instead, the man making their arguments at a U. S. District Court in Fort Worth this week was Robert Henneke — a 41-year-old Texas attorney who’s taken the lead on a number of his party’s legal battles from a conservative think tank in Austin.
Republicans in Washington tried and failed to repeal Obamacare multiple times last year. They’re now in the middle of heated Supreme Court confirmation, in which they’ve vowed their nominee Brett Kavanaugh won’t use courts as a means to advance their policy agenda.
“Part of the political problem for Republicans is that so many of the promises made to voters [on the Affordable Care Act] was to fix in it D.C.,” Henneke told the Star-Telegram in an interview this week.
“That, of course, has never occurred,” said Henneke. “It’s easier to campaign against a hypothetical than it is to deal with what the outcome [of repealing the law]…and the policy solutions that would flow as a result.”
National Democrats say efforts to gut Obamacare could leave millions of people without access to health insurance — and give their party its most potent message against Republicans the November midterms.
GOP leaders have raised alarms about the optics of Texas’s effort, and are working to insulate themselves from some of its politically unsavory elements.
Asked about the Texas lawsuit this week, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who faces a tough re-election race in a suburban Dallas district, declined to answer. Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, told the Star-Telegram, “I don’t know anything about it.”
Even the Republicans pushing the lawsuit, who’ve bragged about taking on an issue Washington won’t, weren’t in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing in Fort Worth.
Paxton is under indictment for securities fraud and faces a challenge from Democrat Justin Nelson this fall. Paxton’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are now their party’s nominees in high-profile Senate races drawing millions of dollars in TV advertising.
Henneke, the Texas lawyer, ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2014, losing a GOP primary runoff to now-Texas state Rep. Andrew Murr. Henneke hasn’t ruled out running for another office in the future.
Through his role as chief counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank with ties to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, he’s argued on behalf of some of the right’s biggest policy battles.
Henneke and TPPF this year sued to stop the city of Austin from mandating that employers offer paid sick leave, an issue that’s pitted business-friendly Republicans against labor-friendly Democrats in the legislature.
In the Obamacare lawsuit, Henneke represents a set of private business owners who are on the case as plaintiffs. with Texas. He says the entire health care law is no longer legal because Congress deleted the individual mandate in the GOP’s tax bill last year.
Henneke and Texas’s argument take aim at one of the law’s most popular provisions: Mandatory coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
“We’re asking for the entire Affordable Care Act to be declared unconstitutional,” Henneke said in July. “The very concept of the pre-existing condition mandate doesn’t exist without the individual mandate.”
A June survey from the non-partisan Kaiser Family Health Foundation found that majorities of voters in both parties, as well as independent voters, say maintaining that piece of the health law is “very important” to them, and that 60 percent of Americans live in households with someone who has a pre-existing condition.
“When we are successful in striking down the Affordable Care Act and we return health care to the states to implement better policy solutions... the sky’s-going-to-fall-argument of the left [will turn] out not to be true,” Henneke contended in the Star-Telegram interview.
“You could see the 2016 election as a national reaction against Washington D.C. and its broken state of both parties,” Henneke added. “There is a frustration with elected officials not getting the job done, not accepting the failings of the ACA, [and] not following through on the promises to address this.”
Wednesday’s case was heard by U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. He can choose to throw out the health care law in its entirety, a move that would almost certainly be appealed.