Last July, after President Obama unilaterally delayed the Obamacare employer mandate for a year, House Republicans asked why the break should apply only to businesses. Why shouldn't individuals be relieved of the burden, too?
So the House voted, 251 to 174, to delay the individual mandate. Twenty-two Democrats joined Republicans in voting for delay. A total of 174 Democrats voted to keep the mandate as is.
Of course the move went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But that was before Obamacare implementation began Oct. 1. It was before the canceled policies, the higher premiums, the higher deductibles, and narrower doctor networks that have come to define Obamacare for millions of Americans.
In light of that, it seems possible that in recent months some House Democrats might have changed their minds on the individual mandate. After all, in the Senate, six Democrats last week asked the Department of Health and Human Services to delay the mandate for people whose policies had been canceled. It was a focused "hardship exemption," but when the administration agreed, it became the first hole in the individual mandate. It seems likely there will be more.
That should be a message to House Republicans: It's time to take another vote on the individual mandate. Would those 174 Democrats who stood firmly behind the mandate in July still be there now? Or will the 22 who voted to delay the mandate be joined by more who are worried by what they've seen since October?
If House Republicans want to highlight Democratic nervousness about Obamacare, focusing on the individual mandate is a good way to do it.
The coercive, unwanted mandate is by far the most unpopular feature of the law. When the New York Times recently asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the part in the 2010 health care law requiring nearly all Americans to have health insurance coverage by 2014 or pay a penalty?" a full 68 percent said they disapproved, while just 31 percent approved.
When the Times polled only those Americans without health insurance — the group supposed to benefit most from Obamacare — 77 percent disapproved of the individual mandate, while just 21 percent approved.
So almost nobody likes it. But here's the thing: The individual mandate is the heart of Obamacare. From the president on down, administration officials believe that without the mandate, the system won't work. So the one thing the public hates most is the one thing Obamacare can't do without. For many Democrats, voting against the mandate, even delaying the mandate, is tantamount to repealing Obamacare altogether. They can't do it, no matter what the voters think.
That's a political problem for Democrats and an opportunity for Republicans. In a private exchange not long after the implementation fiasco began, a senior House aide said GOP strategy is to "separate Obama from Congressional Democrats" on the issue of Obamacare. One way to do that is for the GOP to use its control of the House to force Democrats, all of whom face re-election next November, to re-affirm their support of the mandate.
More than 50 Democrats have arrived in the House since March 2010, when Obamacare became law. Fifteen Democrats have come to the Senate since that time. Will their devotion to a law they didn't pass be as strong as that of more senior Democrats, who fought the original Obamacare battles?
There has been some discussion among Republicans about tying an individual mandate delay to a proposal to raise the nation's debt limit. That would be a perfect way to distract attention away from the mandate and to Republicans themselves. Democrats would angrily vow that they would not stand for bringing the nation to the edge of default. The mandate issue would get lost in the fighting.
A clean vote on the individual mandate would be infinitely more effective for Republicans. That's not to say it would succeed. Of course, many House Democrats will still vote against delay, and Senate Democrats will kill it.
But Republicans held dozens and dozens of votes on Obamacare in years past when the public had little idea what was at stake. Republicans warned that Obamacare would be a disaster, but voters didn't know what was coming. Now, they do. Maybe it's time for the House to start voting again.