01:41 - Source: CNN
Federal judge in Texas strikes down Obamacare (2018)
Washington CNN —  

Top congressional Republicans were quick to argue that a federal court ruling that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional won’t affect the immediate future for health care consumers and the legal battle will take a long time to play out.

The comments from GOP leadership come, however, as some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers say that the ruling puts pressure on Congress to come up with a plan if the ruling striking down the law is ultimately upheld.

“The status quo will be maintained pending appeals to the circuit courts and the Supreme Court,” Sen. John Cornyn, the current No 2. Senate Republican, reassured on Monday, adding that people need to “take a deep breath” and “we’ll see what the Supreme Court does, maybe in a couple of years from now.”

“Nothing is going to happen near term. We know that,” added Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s current No. 3 Republican.

The landmark health care law does remain in effect for now, despite a ruling Friday in Texas that said that its individual coverage mandate is unconstitutional and that the rest of the law therefore cannot stand. It’s too soon to say what the ruling will mean for the fate of the law since it is expected to face appeal and likely end up before the Supreme Court.

That has left Republicans in Congress, who very much want to make broad legislative changes to the Affordable Care Act, in wait-and-see mode over whether they will be forced into yet another fight over health care as a result of the current legal battle. Lawmakers are also anxious about the potential political fallout of disrupting the health care law that polls show is popular with many Americans.

But while Republican congressional leaders appear to be arguing that at least for now this remains an issue for the courts to resolve, President Donald Trump has seized on the ruling to immediately turn attention to Congress.

The President tweeted on Friday: “Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done!,” referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is poised to become the House speaker in the new Congress.

Trump tweeted again on Monday, saying, “We have a chance, working with the Democrats, to deliver great HealthCare! A confirming Supreme Court Decision will lead to GREAT HealthCare results for Americans!”

Several GOP senators acknowledged Monday that even if the issue isn’t before Congress currently, the ruling puts pressure on lawmakers all the same.

“It puts pressure on everybody to come up with something that endures,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is retiring at the end of his current term.

“It should put pressure on Congress to finally address the millions of Americans who have been hurt under Obamacare,” said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, adding, “I believe it is long past time that we follow through on our promises to expand competition, expand consumer freedom and lower premiums to make health insurance more affordable.”

“It puts both parties in a heightened focus on health care, there’s no question,” said retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker added, “It’s going to take a long time for that to work its way up in the courts, so there’s a lot of time.”

The question of what Republicans should support when it comes to health care policy has proven divisive for the party in the past.

The GOP’s struggle to unify around a policy was on full display on Capitol Hill last year when there wasn’t enough consensus among Senate Republicans to pass a narrowly-crafted Obamacare repeal bill, despite the fact that congressional Republicans had rallied around calls to repeal the law during President Barack Obama’s administration.

One challenge for the GOP is the fact that the politics surrounding the health care law have shifted as parts of the law have proven popular, such as protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

That, in part, helps explain why so many Republican candidates claimed to support those protections while campaigning in the 2018 midterms, despite the fact that a group of Republican state attorneys general filed the lawsuit that resulted in Friday’s ruling, which threatens to wipe away the ACA’s protections if upheld.

“I think most people like, and I certainly do, the pre-existing health problems protection and I think whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you like that aspect. We might be able to put that in a lot of policies,” said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama on Monday.

One key difference between any health policy debate that takes place in the run-up to the 2020 election and the debate that unfolded immediately after Trump won the White House is that Republicans will no longer control both chambers of Congress starting in January.

That could take some of the pressure off of Republicans to fully flesh out the nitty gritty details of any policy alternative to Obamacare and give the GOP more leeway to focus on a broad, overarching message on health care instead.

Some GOP strategists argue that now the political dynamics of any health care policy could even be more favorable to the Republican Party with Democrats in control of the House.

“This ruling would have been terrible for Republicans if they still controlled the House, but because they don’t, they have the opportunity to sit back and focus on message and really this has the potential to give Republicans second life on this issue,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.

CNN’s Tami Luhby contributed to this report.