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Obamacare encore

As lawmakers head home for the long congressional recess, they will find themselves talking with constituents about the healthcare law—again


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meeting with the press last Thursday. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Obamacare encore

On the first day of August and the last day before the Senate adjourned for a five-week recess, discussions got a little heated on Capitol Hill despite the lower-than-normal humidity outside.

“Have everyone sit down and shut up,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasted to a noisy chamber that historically has been called the world’s greatest deliberative body. “It’s unfair … it’s just not polite.”

On the other side of the Capitol, through the building’s majestic rotunda, House Speaker John Boehner hoped “the August recess will have our members in a better mood when they come back.”

Don’t bet on it. Lawmakers may enjoy the luxury of not having to report back to Congress until Sept. 9, but when they do return to work they will face major battles over federal spending. The government will reach its borrowing limit early this fall while funding for the federal government ends on Sept. 30.

That means lawmakers will have to debate another increase in the nation’s debt ceiling—something that has become an all-too-frequent tradition of late—as well as agree on a budget for funding the government when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Fiscal conservatives likely will clash with the White House over spending levels: President Barack Obama will want more to spend on his programs while most Republicans will want to keep spending low as a way to tackle the nation’s debt and deficit problems.

Until then both parties will use the August recess to make their pitches to the public back home. Winning the debate outside of Washington in the summer’s final weeks may determine how the debate goes inside Washington after Labor Day.

And, like the summer of 2010, this political recess mainly could be about one thing: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That summer, Tea Party-led furor at town hall meetings across the country over the newly passed healthcare law helped fuel a Republican takeover in the House that November. Now with major parts of the law slated to take effect in January, Republicans are hoping for a repeat uproar among voters. But is it too late?

On Thursday, while Reid was lecturing inside the Senate chamber, a group of senators who do not think it is too late joined conservative groups for an anti-Obamacare rally outside the Capitol.

“I hope this law never goes into effect,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “I don’t think it can be fixed. … But if, God forbid, it does, every single one of us will have to go home and answer to people who ask, ‘Why did you let this happen?’ And I for one, and I know my colleagues as well, are not prepared to go home and tell people, ‘Well, we tried, but we couldn’t.’ We have to go home and say, ‘We did everything we could. We took every step available to us.’”

Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as representatives from groups such as Tea Party Patriots, ForAmerica, Club for Growth, Citizens United, FreedomWorks, and the Family Research Council joined Rubio.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, stressed that mandates in Obamacare discriminate against religious businesses, non-profit organizations, and colleges by forcing them to support insurance coverage of contraceptives, including abortifacients.

“The greatest threat to our faith, our families, and our freedoms is Obamacare,” he said, “and so we are saying it must be stopped.”

To that end, senators like Lee, Cruz, and Rubio have devised a strategy of encouraging lawmakers to oppose any budget bills that provide funds for the implementation of Obamacare. Refusing to pass a budget that includes dollars for Obamacare could set up a government shutdown battle if Congress can’t agree on a budget by Sept. 30.

But these three senators, each in their first term and each proud to label themselves as outside of the Washington political establishment, believe that defunding Obamacare in this fall’s short-term budget may be the last best chance to stop this law.

A coalition of 50 social and fiscal conservative groups have sent a letter to Speaker Boehner arguing that the Republican-led House should pass a bill that keeps the government funded but provides no cash for Obamacare. Heritage Action for America will be promoting this view by hosting town halls in nine cities across the country this month.

“The only way we win this fight is if the grassroots rise up and demand of our elected representatives that they stand up and do the right thing,” said Cruz, who will make an appearance at one of the Heritage events. “Success depends upon hundreds of millions of Americans standing up and demanding this.”

Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica, warned lawmakers, “If you fund Obamacare, you own it.” Despite this threat, not all Republicans are backing the tactic. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called it the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” Other members of the Senate old guard also attacked the plan: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the plan “shenanigans,” while Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., labeled it “foolish.”

This branch of the congressional GOP argues that even if the House passes a spending bill with no funds for Obamacare, then the Democratic-led Senate will reject it. And even if it somehow miraculously passes the Senate, Obama already has pledge to veto it.

“When people really start to think about the consequences of shutting down the entire federal government and inconveniencing and harming, quite frankly, millions of Americans, millions out of work, tens of millions denied services they need, you change the debate from Obamacare to the government shutdown,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “That’s just not a good strategy.”

But Cruz and his allies argue that the president will be blamed for any government shutdown if he vetoes a spending bill that funds all of the government except for Obamacare. Cruz believes it is important to act now before the new government program starts. The administration’s plan, he said, “is to get as many people as possible addicted to the sugar, addicted to the subsidies. It is an iron rule of politics that those who receive subsidies, inevitably, after they start receiving those subsidies, fight to retain those subsidies.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a strong opponent of Obama’s healthcare overhaul while it was a bill being debated, argued there is not a “legislative method that we have that is capable of defunding it short of 67 votes in the U.S Senate, short of two-thirds votes in the U.S. House.” That’s the votes needed to override a presidential veto. Coburn said a recent report by the Congressional Research Service found most of Obamacare spending is slotted in the mandatory spending side of the budget and not under the discretionary spending side that can be tweaked by lawmakers. Agencies tasked with implementing the law could also plug into other funding sources.

“Their motives are absolutely pure,” Coburn said of the Cruz, Lee, and Rubio faction. “The only effective way to truly stop Obamacare would be to totally reverse it.”

But Cruz said Americans are tired of all the speeches against Obamacare and all the symbolic votes (he called them “fig leaf votes”) to repeal the law that don’t really accomplish anything. The Republican-led House has voted to repeal all or parts of Obamacare at least 40 times. On Friday, the last day before they began their recess, the House passed a bill called the “Keep the IRS Off Your Healthcare Act.” All of these bills have gone nowhere in the Senate.

So Cruz has not backed down from his strategy despite pressure from senior members in his party. He has gone on radio programs to describe the “powerful defeatist approach among Republicans in Washington” and to label Washington Republicans as “scared of being beaten up politically.” It’s the kind of boat-rocking Cruz promised he would do when he was an underdog Senate candidate in Texas last summer.

Cruz hopes that enough Republicans and Democrats (motivated by their constituents) in the Senate could come together to reach the 41 votes needed to filibuster a must-pass measure like the one to fund the federal government. That leverage, Cruz believes, could force Democrats to pass a funding bill that leaves out Obamacare while keeping the rest of the government open.

Regardless, both factions of Republican lawmakers see August as a critical period for getting the public on their side when it comes to the future of Obamacare, and they have plenty of ammunition to make their arguments.

Ohio government officials announced Thursday they expect individual residents would see a 41 percent increase in their premiums when they start buying health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges next year. Premiums will cost $332.58 a month on average in 2014, after costing $236.29 in 2013. On the same day Ohioans learned of their rate hikes, Daniel Werfel, the acting chief of the Internal Revenue Service, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill he would prefer to keep his current policy and not go on Obamacare. That follows a form letter sent by the National Treasury Employee’s Union to its members, which includes IRS workers, asking them to sign and send to their lawmakers. The letter demands they be exempt from Obamacare’s insurance exchanges.

Leaders of other top unions, including the heads of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International also wrote a letter in July. It warned that the new law will “shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40-hour workweek that is the backbone of the American middle class.” These organizations, which at one time lobbied and rallied for Obamacare, said the law had “perverse incentives” and “nightmare scenarios.”

Their fears may stem from companies like the fast-food chain White Castle, which announced at the end of July that it may start only hiring part-time workers to keep insurance costs down. Or from moves made by companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, which earlier this year pushed to increase the number of hours that must be worked for an employee to be considered a full-time worker. Obamacare carries employer insurance mandates that kick-in when a business hits a certain number of full-time employees. A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that half of small businesses in the poll said they were adding more part time workers and reducing hours to avoid the mandate and its penalties.

Not to be out done by Republican arguments, the White House is spending about $700 million in public money on a national marketing campaign to tout Obamacare. Obama, who made a rare visit to Capitol Hill last Wednesday to encourage Democrats to stay firm behind healthcare law as they head home to see their constituents, is slated to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Tuesday.

“People can expect a barrage of advertisements,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. “[Obama’s] picking the pockets of the American people for advertising dollars.”

As the Obamacare and budget fight left Washington and headed to cities across America, Cruz admitted that his group is the underdog and needs a month as passionate as the August recess of 2010 if lawmakers are to return to Capitol Hill bold enough to defund the law.

“Right now we don’t have the votes. We’re not even close,” Cruz said Thursday while talking to college students in Washington for a conference on political activism. “We don’t have the votes in the Senate. We don’t have the votes in the House.”


Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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