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GOP shakes off shock of health care ruling, then seizes on tax message

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 6:58 PM EDT, Fri June 29, 2012
House Speaker John Boehner says the court ruling allows the government to create unwise taxes.
House Speaker John Boehner says the court ruling allows the government to create unwise taxes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First reaction to health care ruling was shock, GOP sources say
  • But as tax angle became clear, they saw a potential political win
  • GOP talking points now revolve around criticizing health mandate as a tax

Washington (CNN) -- As House Speaker John Boehner sat with the top House GOP leaders and aides in his office Thursday morning watching TV news reports that the Supreme Court had upheld President Barack Obama's health care law, the initial reaction was shock.

Republican leaders were prepared for the various outcomes the high court might issue, according to House GOP sources in the meeting, but they were caught off guard when they learned conservative Chief Justice John Roberts was the deciding vote.

Emotions high after Supreme Court upholds health care law

But as the details sank in and they read the surprising legal explanation written by Roberts, they realized they might have lost at the court but won politically.

The chief justice decided that the individual mandate in the law that required Americans to carry health insurance was a tax, which Congress was allowed to levy. Republicans seized on that argument and planned to turn it to their advantage.

The high court had just validated one of the main points the GOP made against the health care bill throughout the 2009 debate. It served up a message they could hammer from now until Election Day: Democrats want to tax Americans and unless you put Mitt Romney in the White House and vote for a GOP House and Senate, they will do it again.

Massachusetts health care mandate included tax penalty

Boiling down the health care decision, Boehner told reporters a couple of hours later, "The government could decide that we're going to tax you if you don't eat broccoli on Tuesday. Apparently, that's not unconstitutional. But I don't think it's a very wise law."

Ruling cements Obama's political legacy, experts say

Republican leaders announced they would follow through on their pledge to repeal the law, or any piece of it, if it was upheld. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on his way into a meeting with rank and file members in the Capitol basement that the House would again vote to roll back the health care law -- as it did in January -- right after it returned from its weeklong Fourth of July recess.

Court ruling pumps up tea partiers

The closed-door meeting to discuss the court's ruling was described as "a little bit somber" by Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador. He said the court's decision "was a little bit surprising."

But Labrador quickly pivoted to the tax message: "The bottom line is that the Supreme Court has said now that Congress has the authority and power to tax everyone for anything at any time, and the American people should be afraid of that."

During the health care debate in 2009, President Obama argued that the individual mandate was not a tax. In an interview with ABC, Obama said, "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase."

Freshman Republican Rep. Dave Schweikert of Arizona pointed to that argument from the president, which he said his Democratic opponent -- then-Rep. Harry Mitchell -- also made arguing the mandate was not a tax.

"We have a White House and we have a Democratic Party that moved this forward swearing it wasn't, now we see the truth," Schweikert said.

Seizing on Roberts' ruling, the House GOP's campaign arm splashed a picture on its Facebook page on Friday -- the one snapped in 2010 when Vice President Biden famously hugged President Obama during a White House ceremony when he signed the health care bill and called it "a big f---ing deal." But the caption on the GOP's version read, "This is a Big F***ing Tax."

Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters Friday that GOP candidates will make a major issue of the court's proclamation that the health care mandate amounted to a tax.

"Chief Justice Roberts has now distinguished and I think highlighted it -- this is a tax and Congress has an ability to tax you," Sessions said. He added, "We will call it what it is -- it is a tax."

Sessions said talking about the threat of new taxes works hand-in-hand with the GOP's focus on the economy. Perhaps previewing what could show up in campaign spots, he said there would be "17,000 IRS agents who will be added to the workforce for the sole purpose of enforcing this tax."

Republican congressional aides had already planned to make repealing health care a centerpiece of their fall campaign message. But Roberts' decision gave them new ammunition and talking points in an area -- taxes -- where public opinion polls frequently show the Democratic Party can be vulnerable.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wouldn't directly answer when asked by a reporter on Thursday about the court's ruling that the mandate in the health care law was a tax.

"Call it what you will, it is a step forward for America's families," Pelosi said. She downplayed the new debate over Roberts' decision as "Washington talk" and emphasized the benefits of the law for those with pre-existing conditions who will now be able to get coverage.

Pressed if she was concerned about political fallout, Pelosi brushed off the question, telling reporters, "The politics be damned, this is about what we came to do."

While the GOP moved to reframe the debate over health care, Democrats criticized Republicans for ignoring the economy and re-fighting a battle from two years ago.

The Democratic campaign committee blasted out press releases about the 60 House Republicans it is targeting in November.

Jesse Ferguson, the spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, "Rather than working to create jobs by strengthening the middle class, Congressman Duffy wants to put insurance companies back in charge of health care: taking away critical patient protections, denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions like asthma, heart disease or cancer and raising prescription drug costs for seniors."

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