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GOP Leaders' Response to Obama Saving Congressional Health Benefits Is Subdued

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Camp put out a statement regarding the Office of Personnel Management’s guidance on how lawmakers and staffers can use their federal employee benefits to help pay for health care on the new health exchanges.

Republicans usually love to rail against Obamacare, but leaders aren’t talking much about President Barack Obama’s decision to save health benefits for members and their staffs.

The Office of Personnel Management confirmed late last week that it would, in the days ahead, issue formal guidance clarifying that members of Congress and their staffs would not lose their health care subsidies under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Administration officials noted that members of both parties had asked the administration to step in, fearing an exodus of top staff if they suddenly had to pay thousands of dollars more out-of-pocket after joining the health exchanges.

GOP leaders are in a tough spot — few on Capitol Hill want to take health benefits away from themselves or their staffs, but the Republican base is dead set against anything Obamacare related, as well as anything that smacks of a special carve out for lawmakers.

On Aug. 2, as House Republicans raced down the Capitol steps to begin the August recess, many members offered their thoughts when solicited by reporters. Responses vacillated between relief that poorly-paid Congressional aides wouldn’t be suddenly burdened with exorbitant health bills and fury over the administration’s hypocrisy in sparing “Washington insiders” but not average Americans from the Obamacare “train wreck.”

At the time, Republican leadership aides suggested they would be prepared to share their own reactions, or those of their bosses, once there was an official ruling. But in the hours following the official OPM announcement on Wednesday, there was silence from key offices on Capitol Hill.

A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio declined to comment, and the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

One House GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call that “this was a fix worked out by Senate Democrats and the White House — our fix would be fully repealing this awful law for everyone.”

President Barack Obama did, in fact, indicate a willingness to intervene on behalf of lawmakers and staff after the issue came up at a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill last week.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., put out a statement that expressed a sentiment similar to that of the leadership aide.

“The proposed rule from the Obama Administration is the latest proof of what most Americans already know — the healthcare law doesn’t work, which is why the House continues to call for the full repeal of the law,” Camp said. “While the Administration has handed out waiver after waiver and exemption after exemption for the well-connected in Washington, they have done nothing to lower healthcare costs for families in Michigan.

“None of this is fair to the American people,” Camp continued. “The American people should not have to pay for the failures of this law. If the law doesn’t work, and it doesn’t, then we out to delay the entire law for at least one year.”

Senators were likewise not quick to comment on the issuing of the proposed rule, though Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is withdrawing his objections to confirming a new director of the OPM. Coburn, the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, had slapped a hold on the nomination of Katherine Archuleta to take the helm of the OPM due to his concerns about the way the health care overhaul would affect Congressional staff.

A Coburn spokesman said the senator is lifting the hold now that OPM has clarified that staff will keep their health benefits.

Archuleta was not among the slew of nominees confirmed before the Senate departed for August recess.

As far as Sen. Charles E. Grassley is concerned, the OPM proposal doesn’t resolve a broader issue that the Iowa Republican highlighted last week: the fact that not all Congressional staffers are subject to the law’s provisions.

“The better choice would be to stop the law now before it undermines the current successful parts of health care in America. Instead of Obamacare, reforms that help the uninsured without disrupting health care for everyone else would be the right approach. But Congress should live under the laws it creates,” Grassley said in a statement. “That includes Obamacare. And, if the exchanges actually go into effect, Congress should pass a law to put White House and congressional leadership in the exchanges.”

Grassley authored an amendment to the Senate version of the health care overhaul, a version of which ultimately led to the law requiring members and staff access health care through the exchanges. Grassley’s amendment included language making clear the benefits would follow members and staff onto the exchanges, but that language did not make it into the law.

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