House GOP Adopts New, Populist Critique of Obamacare

Catherine Hollander and Margot Sanger-Katz
National Journal

In the ongoing rhetorical wars against the president’s health care law, House Republicans have found a new critique—and it has a populist bite.

The argument goes like this: By delaying last week a requirement that employers with a workforce of 50 or more offer their workers insurance, the White House gave a break to big business. But it isn’t granting a similar reprieve to ordinary Americans by postponing the law’s unpopular requirement that individuals obtain health insurance or face a fine. The approach, developed in the wake of the White House’s decision to delay implementing the employer mandate, is designed to force Democrats to take tough votes on the law that could be used against them in close 2014 elections.

“The White House says it’s listening to the concerns of our nation’s businesses. But are they ignoring the voices of American families and taxpayers?” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who chairs the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, asked at a Wednesday hearing. His remarks echo similar talking points from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

It’s unusual rhetorical territory for Republicans, who are frequently criticized for favoring business interests over those of people, a common theme in the 2012 Obama campaign. It’s even a quick switch on health care; in the weeks leading up to the administration’s announcement about the employer mandate, congressional Republicans were attacking the provision as one that stifled business growth and hiring.

But the fairness argument could be a winner in next year’s races, says Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Any time a president is seen picking winners and losers is politically toxic,” she said.

In a press conference Thursday, Boehner announced that leadership would bring two bills to the floor next week to highlight this apparent inequity. The chamber will first vote on a one-year legislative delay of the employer mandate, which Democrats would feel compelled to support in solidarity with the White House. A second bill would postpone the individual mandate for the same time period.

The votes would be unlikely to reach the floor in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Still, they would mark a break from the House’s recent Obamacare strategy, in which votes on the full repeal of the bill have taken precedence over even politically useful piecemeal changes. The preference among some members for an all-or-nothing strategy was laid bare in April, when Cantor failed to secure votes for a bill to transfer Obamacare funds to extend a special insurance program for people with preexisting health conditions. He had listed the bill, the Helping Sick Americans Now Act, as a top legislative priority. But revolt by a group of House conservatives and outside groups sank the effort. It was pulled from the floor and has not reappeared. A third full repeal vote, however, did pass the chamber. The individual mandate is seen as such a central provision of the law that it may be an easier sell to the caucus. “If you’re trying to kill the patient, full repeal is vaporization,” said a GOP House leadership aide. “But this is removing the liver.”

Dan Holler, the communications director at Heritage Action, one of the groups that strongly opposed the Cantor bill, is more lukewarm on the current Boehner strategy. “If you’re serious about doing more than scoring political points, if you’re serious about taking the entire law off the books, you need to defund the entire law,” he said, emphasizing that his group wants a full repeal. Still, he said, it has not yet decided to actively oppose the new strategy. The conservative Club for Growth, another influential opponent of the Cantor bill, declined to comment.

When asked if Democrats would be put in an awkward position by such votes, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said, “Absolutely not. They’re two different species.”

Texas’s Brady, on the other hand, said the side-by-side votes are “absolutely necessary.”

“I think the goal still remains to have in place a much better health care law than the one that is hammering people today,” he said. “But the first and immediate step is to ensure out of fairness that workers aren’t put in a worse position than the business that hires them is, and that’s the real issue.”

Republicans are hoping to keep the delay in the news, with two more hearings scheduled on the subject next week: a second Ways and Means hearing as well as one before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The GOP is clearly still thinking through its messaging on the delay. A press release distributed Wednesday afternoon by Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee asserted that “a one-year delay does nothing to ease the burden of the employer mandate.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misstated the target of the White House's employer mandate delay. The delayed provision would have affected businesses with more than 50 full-time employees.