Politics & Policy

The Republicans’ New Obamacare Squabble

The GOP is divided on bills to let Americans keep their health plans.

‘I’m going to oppose any effort to bring this to the floor just as a messaging vote,” Ron Johnson says of his “If You Like Your Health Plan, You Can Keep It” Act. The Wisconsin senator isn’t interested in giving Democrats a “cover vote” and wants the legislation to move forward only “if it has a chance of passage.” It’s a not-so-subtle jab at the tea-party senators who last month led an unsuccessful charge to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Johnson’s bill — and similar legislation introduced in the House by Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R., Mich.) — is threatening to reopen the wounds of the government shutdown that had GOP lawmakers openly feuding a few weeks ago. Republicans once again find themselves at loggerheads over exactly how to strike at the president’s health-care law.

#ad#The House and Senate bills differ, with Upton’s legislation taking a broader swipe at the law. It would allow all plans that existed on the individual market on January 1, 2013, to stay in effect through 2014, but also would go a step further, giving everybody — not just those who had the plans previously — the opportunity to purchase them. The Johnson bill, by contrast, would merely allow individuals to keep, in perpetuity, plans they had at any point between the enactment of Obamacare and December 31, 2013.

The Senate proposal hews closely to President Obama’s oft-repeated promise that if you like your plan you can keep it. That’s intentional: According to Johnson, his version stands a greater chance of attracting the Democratic support necessary to pass it into law. “I like what the House is trying to do there; I was just trying to narrowly focus my bill on trying to keep that promise that President Obama made for as many Americans as possible and not go beyond that,” he tells me. “I’m trying to actually attract Democrats’ support and make sure that they have no excuse to say, ‘That doesn’t just honor that promise, that goes beyond that promise.’”

The House is set to vote on — and, in all likelihood, to pass — Upton’s bill this week. In the lower chamber, the Michigan congressman has peeled off support from the GOP’s “suicide caucus,” the 80-member faction that signed an August 21 letter to House speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor urging them to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare. Thirty-three of the signatories, including some of the most vocal members of the defund movement, Republican Study Committee chairman Steve Scalise among them, are backing the strategic shift and co-sponsoring the bill.

In the Senate, the fate of the legislation is less certain. “The entire hurdle here is in the Senate, and it really is going to be dependent on what Senate Democrats are willing to do,” Johnson says. A dozen Democrats who voted yes on the ACA in 2010 face tough reelection battles in 2014, and Johnson is leaning hard on them both in person and on the airwaves. (Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin have introduced similar legislation.) When the bill was finalized, he handed out copies of the legislation to his colleagues on the Senate floor like a pamphleteer; on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, he urged them to “join with me quickly to pass this bill so we can actually preserve those health-care plans before they are extinct.”

Johnson, however, will in all likelihood face opposition from members of his own party. Though 43 Senate Republicans have lined up to co-sponsor the bill, two are conspicuously absent: shutdown architects Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. A Lee spokesman says the senator “hasn’t figured out” whether he will support the Johnson bill yet.

Supporters of the defund movement argue that the law will collapse under its own weight. The ACA “is falling apart, and it needs to fall apart totally and completely at the feet of the Democrats,” says a senior Republican Senate aide. “The Republicans tried everything in their power to stop Obamacare, including the defund effort, and now we are seeing exactly why the Republicans tried. We shouldn’t do anything to go down with the ship with the Democrats.”

Supporters of the defund movement also contend that allowing Americans to keep canceled plans is more difficult than meets the eye, and that insurers will cancel plans regardless of what action the Senate takes. “That would allow the Democrats to say ‘Well, we agree with Ron Johnson, we said you could keep your plan,’ while many insurance companies go ahead with their policy changes.”

Johnson tacitly acknowledges the possibility that some plans may disappear despite congressional action; he has said the bill must be passed quickly, “before these plans just go away forever.” But he believes that if millions on the individual market are allowed to keep their current plans, and don’t enroll in the troubled federal and state exchanges as a result, his legislation will cripple the law.

Only a repeal of the law could bring back every canceled health plan, and Johnson would like Republicans to leave the 2014 elections with a mandate to achieve that. It’s perhaps the only initiative that can unite the party’s squabbling factions.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of NRO.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this piece stated that Nevada’​s Senator Dean Heller was not a sponsor of the Johnson bill. In fact, Senator Heller cosponsored the legislation on November 4. 

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