WASHINGTON — In a reminder of what could have been, presidential also-rans Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders went head-to-head Tuesday night in a nationally televised debate on the Affordable Care Act, mauling each other over a law that President Donald Trump has vowed to repeal and replace.
The matchup between the conservative Republican and liberal Democratic runners-up was the ideological clash many of the party faithful on each side would have liked to have seen in the 2016 general election.
For Cruz, the CNN debate also represented his most significant return to the national stage since his disastrous speech in July at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he was booed for failing to explicitly endorse the GOP nominee.
But in a sign that the U.S. senator from Texas is not fading away, he was booked to represent the "repeal" side of the argument over former President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Sanders, the self-described "democratic socialist" U.S. senator from Vermont, advocated for preserving the law that has extended coverage to some 20 million Americans.
As producers of the 90-minute debate might have hoped, there were sparks before a live audience at George Washington University.
"Bernie and the Democrats want government to control health care," Cruz said. "I trust you, and I trust your doctors."
Sanders' rebuttal: "When Ted talks about choice, here's your choice: You got cancer, you go to your doctor and the insurance company says we're not going to cover it. We can't make money on you."
While Cruz cited the rising premiums and lessening choices under Obamacare, Sanders pointed to the millions of working class people who would lose coverage if the law was repealed. "That's rationing," Sanders said.
To a woman with breast cancer who said Obamacare had saved her life, Cruz assured her that all the Republicans' replacement plans now under consideration would prohibit insurance companies from canceling insurance for people who are sick.
"All of them protect people in your situation," he said.
Sanders argued that there's a loophole in the GOP's promise of continuous coverage.
"You're a good lawyer, and you use words well," Sanders said. But, he noted, the promise not to "cancel" does not guarantee coverage to those who don't already have insurance.
Sanders also said Cruz's assurances ran counter to the rhetoric of his presidential campaign, where he often vowed to repeal "every word of Obamacare."
"I said hundreds of times on the campaign trail, 'Yes, we should repeal every word of Obamacare,'" Cruz said. "But if you listen to the next sentence, I always said we're not done yet with health care reform."
Although the debate was cast in terms of whether or not to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it came at a time of increasing uncertainty in Congress about fulfilling one of Trump's key campaign promises.
While some, like Cruz, have pressed for immediate repeal, Trump and some Republican leaders have suggested that overturning the law should wait on a replacement plan that would not disrupt the health insurance market and leave millions of Americans uninsured.
In an interview Sunday with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, Trump appeared to quash any notion of a quick replacement to the law, saying "maybe it'll take till sometime into next year."
"I would like to say by the end of the year, at least the rudiments," Trump added, "but we should have something within the year and the following year."
Meanwhile, two of the top Republicans in Texas said this week they are working on a much faster time frame — at least for the repeal effort. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady said he expects to begin moving repeal legislation by the end of March.
Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, has said that under the fast-track process called reconciliation, repeal legislation could come up "hopefully in the next 30 days or so." But he has also suggested that the replacement could be a step-by-step process, rather than "one piece of legislation."
Democrats have questioned whether the Trump administration actually has a well-formed replacement plan in place, something that Trump has said would have to occur "essentially simultaneously" with repeal.
"The truth is, Republicans are absolutely in a panic," Sanders said.
Given some of the more popular aspects of the current law, particularly the guarantee of health coverage regardless of pre-existing medical conditions, some in Congress also have begun to talk about "repairing" the law, rather than the sort of full repeal advocated by Cruz and others.
But for Cruz and other lawmakers facing voters in 2018, the issue should be settled sooner rather than later.
"Everyone agrees there is an urgency to the promises we made," he said. "Should Congress move swiftly to repeal Obamacare? Absolutely."