Policy

Vitter's Push to Nix Benefits Roils Senate

Sen. David Vitter's push to eliminate health care benefits for lawmakers and staff may finally get a vote this week, but few on either side of the aisle seem happy about it.

The Louisiana Republican's lonely push to prohibit lawmakers and staff from keeping their health benefits in the new Obamacare exchanges held up the Senate for nearly a week. The stakes are high for Capitol Hill, and senior aides on both sides of the aisle fear a brain drain if staffers lose their benefits. The vote also could hold political peril given that senators would have to vote to save their own benefits as well if they vote down Vitter's amendment.

Disgusted Democrats, who believe Vitter is grandstanding on an issue that stems from a drafting problem with the health care law, retaliated last week by floating the idea of restricting access to premium contributions for those with a record of engaging in prostitution or other unbecoming behavior.

That was an all-too-clear reference to Vitter's alleged indiscretions as a client of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the woman better known as the D.C. Madam. The personal attack demonstrated the particular level of disdain for Vitter, a Democratic aide explained Tuesday, which existed long before his recent procedural maneuvering.

Vitter responded by calling for ethics inquiries against two senior Democratic senators: Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Ethics Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California.

By Tuesday, Reid indicated Vitter's plan would get a vote.

Any vote on Vitter's proposal would be accompanied by a side-by-side alternative, though likely not the one about prostitutes, a Democratic aide said.

In effect, Vitter is proposing to treat members of Congress, staffers and other political appointees as though they are employees who lose their employer-based health benefits and get dumped into the health care exchanges created by the 2010 law.

By eliminating the employer contribution for covered employees, it would put the workers in the same category as those without benefits. That's a point Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., emphasized on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

"It is unfair to do this to the employees of the Senate as well as the members. All that we are asking is that this group of individuals be treated the same as every other American with health insurance through their employment. My fear is that this isn't the end of Sen. Vitter's crusade against health insurance by employers," Durbin said.

Reid said Vitter should leave the staff out of his fight against Obamacare.

"If Republican senators believe they should bear the full cost of their own health insurance, they can without any change in the law decline the federal government's employer contribution and pay their own way. ... But for Sen. Vitter and his Republican allies to end the contribution for 16,000 hardworking federal employees, even after years of accepting the subsidy themselves, is hypocritical and mean-spirited," he said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and several members of his congressional staff said in a Sept. 9 letter to the Office of Personnel Management that they didn't want to participate in an insurance arrangement that they viewed as illegal.

"The program you have proposed is unlawful. It would require Members and their staffs to facilitate the improper expenditure of taxpayer funds," the letter said.

But several other Republicans shied away from taking positions on Vitter's amendment when asked by CQ Roll Call.

"Let's see what form it finally takes. There are various discussions about what form it could finally take. I don't see any reason to treat congressional staff members differently than we do all federal employees, for example," Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said. "I'll wait to see when and if it comes up."

Vitter interprets the Office of Personnel Management ruling that staffers and lawmakers can maintain their employer contributions as running counter to the intent of the relevant provision of the health care overhaul.

Vitter argued Tuesday that he's just trying to undo an overreach by the OPM, citing the Senate legislative record from the health care debate.

"The message was whatever the fallback plan for all Americans is — first it was the public option, then it became the exchange — whatever that fallback plan for all Americans is, that's what every member of Congress, that's what congressional staff should go to," Vitter said before explaining his amendment as a proposal to stop a "fat employer subsidy [from] going to the exchange."

Oddly enough, other pieces of Vitter's amendment might have more support if taken by themselves.

"My language on the floor now would say that and would broaden the rule, appropriately, to the president, the vice president and and all of their political appointees," Vitter explained. "The clear intent of this provision in Obamacare from the beginning is what's good for America has to be good for Washington. Whatever America is dealt, the cards, they are dealt."

In fact, the current law that will require lawmakers and some congressional staffers to shift from the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan to the exchange doesn't include executive branch officials or appointees, or even all the aides on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has focused his attention on that exclusion, writing letters to the OPM seeking an administrative action that would expand the scope of the covered employees.

Vitter's stand stalled work, at least temporarily, on a bipartisan energy efficiency bill championed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Sen. John Hoeven was maintaining optimism that an agreement could be reached.

The North Dakota Republican has drafted a number of energy policy amendments, including language supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.

"We have come to agreement on a number of amendments that could get votes," Hoeven said. "The first issue is what happens with Sen. Vitter's [amendment], but at the same time, we continue to work on other amendments."

"From our standpoint, we're saying, 'Let people vote, let's vote,'" Hoeven said. "We're pushing for as many votes as we can."

Reid said Tuesday that any agreement would need to include a refined list of amendments for the broader energy bill.

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