WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders took a small step on Friday toward pulling together a viable alternative to President Barack Obama's four-year-old health care law but faced deep divisions over whether the GOP caucus can coalesce around a comprehensive proposal.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia met privately with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the vice chairman of the Republican Conference and three Republican committee chairmen -- Budget's Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Education's John Kline, of Minnesota, and Ways and Means' Dave Camp of Michigan to discuss a way forward.
The session, which produced no legislation, comes in an election year in which Republicans see the unpopular law as their ticket to political victory in November. Democrats have struggled to defend the Affordable Care Act, especially vulnerable Senate incumbents whose fate could decide majority control.
The GOP expects to hold its House majority and sees a legitimate shot at gaining the six seats necessary to seize control of the Senate.
Republicans who have derided Obama's law have voted some 50 times to repeal, gut or change the Affordable Care Act, but they've been unable to unify around a credible alternative. The House is slated to vote next week on a measure that targets one element of the law, eliminating the penalty for individuals who fail to sign up for health care insurance.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says replacing "Obamacare" requires a discussion to sort through numerous proposals. He said his members have offered 126.
The difficulty for the GOP is division within the ranks over how and whether to proceed as well as what should be in the legislation. Among the major questions are whether to offer a comprehensive proposal or offer piecemeal measures, whether to keep the more popular elements of Obama's law such as leaving children on their parents plans until age 26, or scuttling the Affordable Care Act entirely.
Coming up with an alternative that would garner 218 Republican votes will be difficult, a point reflected in the responses of rank-and-file Republicans.
Three-term Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida said in an interview Friday that it was critical for the GOP to coalesce around an alternative that includes some elements of the current law, such as ending discrimination against individuals with existing conditions, and other proposals to help the 30 million Americans without health insurance. He said it would be a mistake for Republicans to simply sit by and count on their opposition to the law to carry them to wins in November.
"I come from a football family and I can't stand 'prevent' defense," said Rooney, the grandson of Art Rooney, founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Teams always play that at the end when they're up big and we're up big right now. There's this philosophy that we can do no harm if we just play 'prevent' defense and I don't think we serve our constituents well when we don't give them a reason why they should elect us."
Rooney, who is paying $2,500 more a year for family coverage under the health care law, added that "any idiot can come up here and vote 'no' every time. It's leading that's the hard part and that's what we've got to do."
Two-term Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, an anesthesiologist, suggested producing a set of health care principles, with the overriding statement that every individual can choose a health care policy and keep it. He questioned whether any proposal could include medical malpractice reform, an issue popular with Republicans, and suggested that might be a matter best handled by the states.
"We should begin talking about what it will take to replace it, but realistically I'm not sure we should pass a bill that we know the president's not going to sign," Harris said in an interview.
In the meantime, Democrats used the GOP deliberations to criticize the Republicans for failing to offer an alternative.
The GOP is offering "no proactive agenda whatsoever," said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.