House GOP considers smaller, achievable steps against Obamacare

The story of defunding Obamacare is pretty much over in the Senate. There will be lots of talk about it in the next 48 hours, but everybody knows what will happen: Senate Democrats will strike a provision to defund Obamacare from a continuing resolution to fund the government, and then send the so-called “clean” resolution back to the House.

At that point, probably this weekend, House Republicans will decide what to do. At the moment, it appears they are leaning toward replacing the defunding provision with smaller measures to chip away at Obamacare without actually attacking the national health care scheme head-on.

House GOP leaders have lots of options. They could always re-attach a defunding provision and send the continuing resolution back to the Senate. I’m told that idea is off the table; it would do nothing except provoke a government shutdown. The House GOP could also attach a measure to delay the implementation of Obamacare, or of the individual mandate at the heart of Obamacare, for a year or some other period of time. I’m told that is also off the table; Senate Democrats and President Obama have shown no more inclination to agree to delaying Obamacare than they have to defunding it.

House GOP leaders could also decide to surrender completely and simply pass the “clean” continuing resolution, ensuring funding of the government and doing nothing about Obamacare. I’m told that???s off the table, too.

So what will be done? House leaders are considering two measures that could be attached to the continuing resolution. In the end, the CR could go to the Senate with one or both of them. The first is a provision to kill the 2.3 percent tax on the medical devices industry that went into effect in January. Several Senate Democrats have big device manufacturers in their states and would like to get rid of the tax.

In December of 2012, 16 Democrats sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid asking that the tax be eliminated. They are an influential group: Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, Patty Murray, John Kerry, Kirsten Gillibrand, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Ben Nelson, Robert Casey, Debbie Stabenow, Barbara Mikulski, Kay Hagan, Herb Kohl, Jeanne Shaheen, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Donnelly. Sounding much like a Republican, Franken called the tax “job-killing.”

Then, in March of this year, the Senate held a symbolic, non-binding vote on the tax, and the vote was 79-20 to repeal it. Thirty-four Democrats voted against the tax. So now, if House Republicans attach a measure killing to the tax to the continuing resolution, what will Democrats do? It seems likely Reid would be under significant pressure to submit.

The other measure House Republicans are considering attaching to the continuing resolution is one to reverse an Office of Personnel Management decision to exempt members of Congress, their staff, and some White House employees from the provisions of Obamacare that cover people who purchase health coverage through Obamacare exchanges. Currently, those employees enjoy generously-subsidized coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, but Obamacare contains a clause, inserted by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, that requires members of Congress and staff to purchase their coverage through the exchanges, just like millions of Americans who will be affected by the health law. For Hill workers, that would mean losing the generous federal subsidy, and likely paying more for coverage.

Democrats hate the idea. Over the summer, they appealed to President Obama for help and shortly thereafter OPM ruled that aides could continue to receive the subsidy, even if they have to purchase coverage through the exchanges. There could not be a clearer example of Congress seeking to exempt itself from the policies it imposes on the American people.

Reid has been fighting any attempt to push congressional employees onto the exchanges without the big federal subsidy. But polls have shown enormous public support for a measure requiring Congress to live by the same laws it passes for the public. If House Republicans attach such a measure to the continuing resolution, Reid would again be under pressure, but this time from two sides — from his members to kill the measure, and from the public to pass it. It’s unclear what would happen, but Republicans believe the effort could be a winner.

The problem for House GOP leaders is that many of their own members will reject the two provisions — the medical device tax repeal and staff subsidy measure — as baby steps that don’t attack the big problem of Obamacare. They’re correct, but the fact is Republicans, without control of the Senate or the White House, cannot put an end to Obamacare. The question now is what measures, if any, the GOP can unite behind to put new limits on the health care law.