Republicans shift focus from repeal to Obama health law’s impact on jobs and cost to businesses

Following an initially fractured response to the passage of President Obama’s health bill, the GOP is moving its message away from trying to repealing the bill and toward focusing on the law’s impact on businesses and jobs.

The party has been helped by new polls showing continued public disapproval of the law, and by a deluge of announcements from major U.S. corporations about its financial cost.

Announcements by several large corporations including AT&T and Caterpillar within days of the bill’s passage into law were “fortuitous,” said Rob Collins, executive director of the American Action Network, a fledgling conservative political advocacy organization.

“It took us a couple days to recover from the shock of the bill passing,” said Collins, who until February was chief of staff to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Collins said many Republicans were very confident that the health bill would not pass out of the House, based largely on the opposition from pro-life Democrats such as Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who was persuaded to support the bill the day of the vote by an executive order issued by President Obama.

After the bill passed by a vote of 219-to-212, many Republicans were unprepared for the Democratic messaging, which immediately sought to put them on the defensive for wanting to repeal benefits for Americans in the bill.

“They are now are in the unfortunate position of looking voters in the eye and pledging to take away their health care, reinstate the donut hole for seniors, and restore pre-existing conditions for insurance companies,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which began formulating this message back in December.

The immediate Republican response did not help them: some said repeal the bill and start over, while others said they wanted to repeal parts of the bill and replace them with better solutions.

Now, however, “we are seeing a shift” in Republican message, Collins said.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose chairman – Sen. John Cornyn of Texas – has had to clarify whether he wanted to repeal the full bill or just parts of it, indicated that the GOP would be talking more about the economic impact of the bill from now on.

“The number one issue on the minds of most Americans is jobs and the economy, with health care part of that larger narrative,” Walsh said.

“The fundamental political problem facing Democrats, however, is that they’re unable to explain to voters how passing a trillion dollar health-care bill either creates jobs, other than for the IRS, or lowers health-care costs for families. Arguably, the initial indicators are that this legislation is making America’s economic situation even worse.”

Even before the House passed the health bill on March 24, Caterpillar Inc. announced that the legislation would cost the company $100 million in added expenses in the first year alone.

A number of other corporations followed suit after the bill passed, many of them protesting a specific provision that reduces tax exemptions for companies that provide drug benefits for retirees.

AT&T announced on Friday that the cost to them of this provision would be $1 billion. The telecom giant is projected to bring in $124 billion in revenues this year, though its profits will be less than that.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairmen Henry Waxman, California Democrat, has expressed skepticism about the corporations announcements, summoning them to testify April 21 about their complaints.

But Republicans have begun to pounce on the announcements, using them with increasing frequency to build a case that the health bill is bad for the economy.