Politics & Government

John Yarmuth: Alison Lundergan Grimes wise to say little about health law

U. S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville spoke during a U.S. House committee field hearing on federal health care in the Farish Theatre at the Lexington Public Library in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, August 27, 2013.
U. S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville spoke during a U.S. House committee field hearing on federal health care in the Farish Theatre at the Lexington Public Library in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, August 27, 2013. Herald-Leader

WASHINGTON — The last Kentucky Democrat in Washington said Wednesday that Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes has been politically smart to avoid taking a firm stance on President Barack Obama's health care law.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said Grimes can wait until Kentuckians decide if they like the new law, major portions of which went into effect in Kentucky on Tuesday, and not give Republican allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a chance to tie her to Obama.

"I think it is probably smart politics," Yarmuth told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "She didn't vote for it because she didn't have to vote for or against it. I think just from a very pragmatic political perspective, I think she has the opportunity to wait and see how it's received. When she starts to say positive things about it, the climate will be better for her to do that."

When pressed by reporters, Grimes has previously said she is troubled by some parts of the Affordable Care Act and would push to "fix" some of its mandates on businesses, but not repeal the entire law.

"Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water," she said in August, noting that the law prohibits insurance companies from cancelling coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and allows young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance plans until they turn 26 years old.

Yarmuth and other Democrats are betting on the success of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans universally refer to as Obamacare. If they're right, then Republicans like McConnell who have battled the president on the issue will feel pain at the polls, the Democrat said.

"Mitch and most all the Republican federal office holders have been such strong opponents of the ACA I think ultimately their credibility's going to be undermined and that'll hurt them at the polls," Yarmuth said.

Grimes' campaign has been relentless in attacking McConnell through news releases since the federal government shut down midnight Monday. She and her campaign, however, have had little to say about the health insurance exchange that began operating in Kentucky on Tuesday morning.

"She's still getting up to speed on a lot of these issues," Yarmuth said. "It's tough to get up to speed on the ACA. Mitch McConnell's still not up to speed on the ACA."

The congressman credited Gov. Steve Beshear, who has been an outspoken advocate of the law in Kentucky, for giving Grimes room to decide how much she wants to embrace the law publicly and when she might do so.

"The fact that the governor has been so strongly supportive and has embraced the ACA and the Medicaid expansion, I think she gets some cover that way," he said.

The heart of McConnell's strategy against Grimes so far is an effort to tie her to national Democrats, such as Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both of whom are immensely unpopular in the state.

Yarmuth said Grimes is wise not to step into the spotlight on the health care issue so early in the race and give McConnell and his allies more ammunition to connect her to Obama.

"The biggest asset she has is she's a very appealing candidate in a lot of ways and she's a terrific retail politician," Yarmuth said. "But another big asset she has is that she does not have a record to attack."

The Grimes campaign did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Yarmuth predicted that the GOP will someday regret shutting down the government in an effort to kill the health care law.

He previously estimated the shutdown could last 7-10 days, but on Wednesday, Yarmuth said it could go even longer.

"Nobody knows what the endgame is," he said.

Republicans this week, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, have blamed Obama and Senate Democrats for what they say is a refusal to compromise.

Yarmuth argued that is not the case, saying that the dollar amount of the budget measure at stake shows that Democrats have already compromised "to the tune of $90 billion."

The one-year delay of the individual mandate portion of the health care law that Republicans say is an effort to compromise with the White House is really just another attempt to stop the law, Yarmuth said.

"Even a one-year delay of the individual mandate essentially kills the Affordable Care Act," he said. "They're doing the same thing that they've done 44 times. They know it's not going to happen. So I'm not sure where they've actually given any ground."