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POLITICS: PennAve

Health care subsidies for Congress a tempting target for Republicans in funding fight

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Obamacare,Republican Party,Health Care,PennAve,Government Shutdown,Subsidies

Among the bargaining chips in the debate over funding the government and Obamacare, one proposal has Democratic lawmakers particularly nervous.

It's a Republican measure to eliminate generous federal subsidies for members of Congress and their staff who are about to be thrust into the newly created health insurance exchanges.

Democrats so abhor the proposal that in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., threatened to draft an amendment that would retaliate against any lawmaker who voted against the subsidies by forever preventing them from receiving them.

"That amendment was almost the definition of what bribery is," said an aide to Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who authored legislation in the Senate that would eliminate congressional health care subsidies.

Now Democrats may be forced to vote on Vitter's bill.

House Republican leaders may add the provision to a stopgap funding resolution that Congress must pass in the coming days to avert a government shutdown. Or the provision could be added to legislation allowing President Obama to raise the 16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

No matter where Republicans attach it, it would be hard for Democrats to vote against it because it is aimed at subjecting lawmakers and their employees to the same rules under the new health care law as the rest of the public who will have to rely on the exchanges to purchase health insurance.

"That's a real possibility," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told the Washington Examiner, when asked if the provision would be added to the funding resolution or debt limit legislation. "It has to be done at some point in time. Congressmen shouldn't be treated differently than anybody else and the perception in the world is that we are being treated differently."

When Democrats authored the health care law in 2010, Republicans wanted to make sure Congress and congressional employees would also have to abide by the new law, so they amended it to require Congress to receive health insurance via the new health care exchanges.

Under current law, lawmakers and staff are enrolled in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, with 75 percent of the cost of premiums covered by the government.

Under Obamacare, they can no longer use the FEHBP program and the federal subsidies for everyone working in Congress would end. That's because the law does not allow employers who do not provide health insurance to instead subsidize employees in the exchanges.

In a private Capitol Hill meeting with Obama this summer, Democrats convinced him to tweak the law to maintain the premium subsidies for lawmakers and staff.

Lawmakers feared a "brain drain," from staff fleeing Capitol Hill for jobs in the private sector, where, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, large companies pay about 75 percent of employee heath care premiums.

But Democrats acknowledge if Republicans propose eliminating the subsidies, it would be hard to explain why members of Congress and their employees should maintain a perk that others in the health insurance exchanges do not receive.

"That would be a tough vote," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., told the Examiner. "I have a daughter with a malignant brain tumor. I need to cover my kids."

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., said he won't vote for eliminating the subsidies, adding, "this issue would be egregiously misrepresented in the political debate."

Andrews said eliminating the subsidies would equate to a $15,000 pay cut for Hill employees, "for some political reason." Maintaining the subsidies, Andrews said, would simply ensure that lawmakers and staff are treated "the way everyone else is treated."

But Republicans see it as an example of Democrats trying to dodge the health care law that they are forcing the rest of America to live under, particularly employees who have been suddenly dumped into the exchanges by companies that have dropped their health insurance programs because of Obamacare.

During his nearly 22-hour filibuster against the health care law this week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, challenged Democrats on the congressional health care subsidies, providing a taste of what Democrats will face if the provision ends up in the debate over the short-term spending resolution or the debt ceiling.

""I would like to see every federal employee put under the exchanges," Cruz argued on Tuesday night. "So If we are going to make the rules for the American people, that we be subject to those same rules, those same plans, so that when we go on television and say the exchanges are very good, we are not talking about something someone else is experiencing, we are talking about our own health care."

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