Sunday, November 3, 2013

Republicans give Health Law Room to stumble

Many House Republicans are replacing their push to delay or defund the 2010 federal health law with a new strategy: Hang back and see if problems with the rollout continue or get worse.

It is an abrupt reversal of the activist approach of just weeks ago, when Republicans demanded changes to the law in exchange for funding the government or raising the nation's borrowing limit. Now, they say putting the spotlight on technical flaws of the law's health-insurance exchange may be more effective than a direct attack.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas)
Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas)
"It's its own worst enemy, and to some degree it is collapsing under its own weight," said Rep. Michael Burgess (R., Texas), who sits on the committee that pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday to explain what is going wrong.

Weeks ago, Democrats had been unified against GOP efforts to delay parts of the law, particularly the requirement that people carry insurance or pay a penalty. But now, as problems in the rollout of the law prompt some Democrats to call for a delay, it is Republicans who say they are giving up on changing anything.

"There are folks in my caucus who say just let the Americans face the pain," said Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.), who voted recently to link government spending to a one-year delay of the health law. Now, he says the fate of the law is out of the hands of Congress. "At this point in time I don't think we can change anything," Mr. Huelskamp said.

Democrats see the approach, which focuses on oversight hearings, as a not-so-veiled attempt to undermine the Affordable Care Act. "They hate this law," Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) said of GOP lawmakers. "They want it to fail. They're praying for chaos to affirm their suspicions that it's the wrong thing for America. Now, when they criticize the rollout as not being smooth and not being fair to the American people, it rings hollow."

Many Democrats say that once problems with the website are ironed out, Americans will see the law as an improvement.

One wing of the Republican Party has favored confrontation over the health law, while the current strategy shows the more pragmatic wing reclaiming the upper hand. Indeed, Republicans who have watched House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) for years say the approach is consistent with one of his political philosophies: If you perceive your opponent to be committing suicide, get out of the way.

"It's nonconfrontational: Here's your law, have at it. And things aren't going very well," said former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, who was a close ally of Mr. Boehner's and is the head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist group.

There is a risk of new intraparty fights early next year, when government spending must be renewed and the borrowing ceiling must be raised again. And some Republicans still prefer trying to vote the law out of existence. "We've got to delay it until we repeal it," said Rep. Paul Broun (R., Ga.). "We've got to do everything we can."

Other House Republicans prefer to focus on boosting oversight of the law. On Thursday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) said his panel issued a subpoena to Ms. Sebelius for documents related to the exchange website.

Republicans are speculating that Mr. Obama will have to delay the requirement that people carry health insurance. Last month, the administration effectively extended the deadline for Americans to avoid a penalty, giving them until March 31, but it has said the website will be fully functioning by the end of November and that there is no reason to discuss a delay.

Such a further delay would have real effects, according to David Axene, a fellow with the Society of Actuaries. Potentially, it could prompt younger people to forgo coverage and leave insurers to cover mainly older people, which could, in turn, lead to higher rates.

Some Democrats say that is why they are focused on making the online exchange work. "When you start making changes that particularly go to the question of being able to predict, for example, what premiums will be, it's got great implications," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.).

By Siobhan Hughes

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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