Senator David Vitter is nothing if not persistent.
Nearly two years after the Louisiana Republican’s first attack on Congress’s Obamacare exemption, Vitter and Texas senator Ted Cruz are teaming up for yet another shot at the federal health-care subsidies fraudulently obtained by lawmakers. In a departure from previous attempts, the pair believe that a measure to kill the subsidies will attract more support from their colleagues if it exempts congressional staffers. And they intend to tack such a measure on to the crucial federal highway bill currently making its way through Congress — if their fellow senators don’t nix the provision before it reaches the Senate floor.
On Tuesday, Vitter filed a standalone bill requiring members of Congress, the president, and all presidential appointees to enroll in Obamacare and give up subsidies fraudulently obtained through D.C.’s small-business health-insurance exchange. Cruz plans to submit an identical amendment to the Highway and Mass Transit Bill, a must-pass piece of legislation and a likely vehicle for pet projects on both sides of the aisle.
“Virtually all of my Republican colleagues regularly come to the floor and rightly complain about President Obama changing statutory law with a stroke of his pen, acting beyond his authority,” Vitter said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “This is a crystal-clear example of that. And when we complain about it in other contexts, I think we should speak up and complain about it even when it benefits us. . . . We should not stand for this Washington exemption from Obamacare.”
“It’s a policy that Senator Cruz strongly supports, so he’s happy to take up the mantle,” says Cruz spokesman Phil Novack.
An amendment added to Obamacare shortly before its passage in 2010 required congressional lawmakers and their staff to enroll in the law’s health-insurance exchanges, but offered no provision through which they could maintain employer health-care subsidies. Lawmakers scrambled for a solution once this was discovered, beseeching the Obama administration for aid.
The White House directed the Office of Personnel Management to allow the House and Senate to file for health care as small businesses — a dubious designation for two legislative bodies that employ thousands of staffers. Lawmakers submitted applications to the D.C. small-business exchange claiming implausibly that the House and Senate each had just 45 employees. At the apparent direction of GOP leadership, an attempt by Vitter to investigate the fraud was squashed by five Republicans on the Senate Small Business Committee.
Vitter first tried to end the congressional Obamacare exemption in 2013, under a Democrat-controlled Senate. That initiative went nowhere, as many Republicans joined their colleagues on the other side of the aisle in expressing opposition to a measure they said would place an undue burden on their legislative staff-members.
Vitter’s latest effort to nix the subsidies is designed to address that concern. It keeps federal subsidies in place for congressional employees and only targets lawmakers, neutralizing one of the most effective arguments against the bill. “Members, the president, political appointees, they can afford to pay for their healthcare,” says Vitter spokeswoman Cheyenne Klotz.
#related#Though the prospects of Vitter’s standalone bill reaching the Senate floor are unclear, Cruz’s identical amendment to the highway bill may stand a better chance of passage. While the Senate rushes to pass the bill before a July 31 deadline, other lawmakers plan to add in their own amendment reauthorizing the controversial Export-Import Bank. Cruz plans to file Vitter’s amendment, along with seven other sweeping provisions, to counter that push. If a deal is struck between Ex-Im supporters and opponents, Congress’s Obamacare exemption could end up on the chopping block as part of the give-and-take.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested he will allow amendments to the highway bill, though how many and which ones remain unknown. Some supporters of the Vitter amendment worry that GOP leadership, eager to preserve support for a bill they desperately want passed, may avoid a vote on ending Congress’s Obamacare subsidies or allow lawmakers to table the provision.
Vitter is currently running for governor of Louisiana, and Cruz is running for president. Polls conducted when Congress’s Obamacare exemption was implemented show over 90 percent of Americans oppose the subsidies, making the issue a political winner even if it stalls again in Congress.
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.