The Corner

A Dry Run for the Graves Bill

Representatives Tom Price of Georgia and Chris Van Hollen just did a segment on Fox News Sunday about the upcoming government-funding bill, with Price pushing a plan put forward by Representative Tom Graves to use it to delay Obamacare by a year.

While Price said he “believe[s]” the Graves bill “will be coming forward this week,” Speaker John Boehner and the GOP leadership has not decided to back the bill. But the debate between Price and Van Hollen, offers a great window into how the debate over that bill would play out if the House fully embraced it.

Granted, the venue was Fox News Sunday, which is going to be more favorable to the plan than much of the media landscape. But Van Hollen, a key Obama ally and one of the sharpest representatives of the Democrats on budget matters, had a fairly rough ride.

Guest host John Roberts began his questioning of Van Hollen by showing a clip of an “incensed,” red-faced union official demanding changes to Obamacare. “We’ll be damned if we’re gonna lose our health insurance because of unintended consequences in a law! It needs to be changed, it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now, brothers and sisters!,” Terrence O’Sullivan, of the Laborers International Union said on the clip.

“So the unions are demanding a fix, there are a lot of problems with this bill, why not just delay it? You’ve delayed the employer mandate, you’ve delayed the cap on out of pocket maximums, you’ve delayed the eligibility requirements. Why not just take a pause for a year and figure this all out?” Roberts asked.

Van Hollen quickly veered to his strongest ground: government shutdown. Price “is prepared to shut down the government if we don’t shut down Obamacare for a year.” He went on to downplay the importance of the employer mandate (“affects only five percent of businesses”), and warn ominously of the impact such a delay would have (“to deny access to affordable insurance to millions of Americans for another year”).

Van Hollen’s stance toward the call for delay was this: “We’re willing to work out the kinks in this, but we’re not going to throw out the central idea,” which he later defined as being “that individuals have a responsibility to get health care, that those who can’t afford it will get a tax credit to help them do this.”

“Responsibility to get health care” is code for the individual mandate, so it’s notable that Democrats are leading into this debate saying that delaying the mandate, envisioned by some Republicans as a potential eventual compromise, is off the table.

“The White House has always picked winners and losers in this, and that’s why they have chosen to delay or waive fully a third of this piece of legislation. We believe, however, that it needs to be delayed or waived for the entire American people – for the entire country – that’s the only fair thing to do,” retorted Price.

Roberts continued to hammer Van Hollen on all of the many problems that have occurred in the course of Obamacare’s implementation and on the apparent discrepancy between giving a delay to some people but not everyone. Van Hollen, one of the Democrats’ best, took it in stride, but the line of questioning would seem to offer hope for the proponents of the Graves’ plan.

The other side of the coin is the pervasiveness of the “shutdown” lens, which Price did everything in his power to avoid. Roberts began his interview with Price by grilling him over “shutting down the government,” following up twice to try to pin down Price on whether he’s willing to push the country over the edge if President Obama doesn’t budge.

In the panel discussion that followed, Fox News analyst Brit Hume said, “The axiom in Washington that when the government shuts down, it doesn’t matter who causes it, Republicans get blamed, is still in effect. This is a very risky proposition.”

Up on Capitol Hill over the past week, I observed plenty of reporters interviewing Republicans on this, and it’s hard to overstate how much focus they put on shutdown. While proponents of the strategy want to re-frame the debate as President Obama shutting down the government, the presumption now, and probably indefinitely, is that, as far as how the story is cast by the media, any shutdown would be the GOP’s fault.  

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