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September 18, 2013

Senate, House ensnared in health care controversy

WASHINGTON — Implacable Republican opposition to Obamacare has Congress once more veering closer to gridlock.

In the House, more than 60 conservatives support tacking a one-year delay in implementing the health care law onto a bill needed to prevent a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Senior leaders warn the GOP could suffer significant political reverses if the party goes along with the plan and President Barack Obama and Democrats resist, as they have made clear they will, but it is strongly backed by senators with tea party ties and their influential allies outside Congress. Its leading advocate, Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, said the proposal unifies the rank and file “around two objectives we have, keeping the government open and protecting our constituents from the harmful effects of Obamacare.”

Across the Capitol, where energy legislation is under debate, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is proposing to add a one-year delay in the requirements for individuals to purchase coverage and for businesses to provide it to their employees. Obama has already ordered the postponement for businesses.

Additionally, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is threatening to hold up passage until the Senate agrees to vote on a proposal that would require lawmakers, their aides and presidential political appointees to obtain their coverage through exchanges that would be set up under the law beginning Oct. 1. They would also be required to pay the full cost of their insurance out of pocket, denying them the contribution that the government currently makes as their employer.

Other Republicans have raised the possibility of tying an increase in the Treasury’s ability to borrow more money to a measure delaying or defunding the health care law, a possibility that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew flatly ruled out on Tuesday. Such efforts “are unacceptable. That is not a path toward something that can ultimately be signed into law,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was more cutting. “The anarchists have taken over,” the Nevada Democrat said recently, referring in less-than-friendly terms to Republicans with tea party ties. “They’ve taken over the House. Now they’re here in the Senate.”

Republicans in Congress see it differently.

“Now, I know that some of you who supported this law might be thinking, “Well, they’ll learn to like it,’ “ Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said recently. “But it’s precisely that kind of  ‘We know what’s good for you’ attitude that’s so upsetting to my constituents. It’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Yet no matter how often GOP leaders pledge allegiance to the cause, tea party activists are loudly dismissive, and rarely pass up a chance to challenge McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

A recent call from the House Republican leadership merely requiring the Senate to take a vote on delaying Obamacare was quickly shot down by the restive rank and file as too weak. That quickly gave birth to the plan backed by  Graves and dozens of other conservatives to impose a one-year delay in implementation, even though leaders fear it risks a re-run of the twin government shutdowns nearly two decades ago that did significant damage to Republicans.

At the same time, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas have featured roles in television ads designed to build public pressure on Congress to block implementation of the law. “Republicans in Congress can stop Obamacare if they simply refuse to fund it,” Lee says in one.

While members of Congress play out the drama, they are supported by a cast of outside groups with money to spend  in the current struggle and the 2014 elections a little over a year away. The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, is financing the television ads that show Lee and Cruz.

DeMint, who has strong ties with tea party groups, no longer has any connection with the organization. He now runs Heritage Foundation, and has reinvigorated its political arm, Heritage Action. The group declared its support for Graves’ legislation last week even before the congressman had publicly unveiled it.

The Club for Growth, which has backed tea party challengers over establishment Republican candidates in recent elections, also supports the measure.

So, too, the Tea Party Express, which issued an “urgent call to action” to its online supporters late last week to back Graves’ measure. Another group, ForAmerica, claimed credit for generating over 40,000 phone calls in three weeks to McConnell, Boehner and other leading Republican lawmakers whom it said “have refused to get behind the effort to defund ObamaCare.”

Republican lawmakers opposed the health care law without exception when it cleared Congress in 2009. After failing to prevent its enactment, they and their allies in several states turned to the courts, backing lawsuits that challenged the new law’s constitutionality. When the Supreme Court ruled against them, House Republicans embarked on a series of votes — more than 40 so far — to defund, delay or otherwise derail the law.

Most such measures have died in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Obama has made it clear he won’t allow his cherished health care law to be erased. Yet periodically, he signs relatively minor adjustments into law that Republicans seize on as evidence that the law is unsustainable.

Over the summer, he made a major change unilaterally to put off the requirement for businesses to provide coverage to their employees.

More recently, in a blow to organized labor, the administration announced that lower-income union workers enrolled in multi-employer plans were ineligible for the same subsidies that millions of other employees are in line for under the law.

Organized labor’s support was critical for the White House when Congress was considering the legislation, but the AFL-CIO passed a resolution at its recent convention calling the impact of the law “highly disruptive” to union health care plans.

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