House Republicans begin efforts to defund health-care overhaul

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 1:01 AM

Republicans launched this week the first of what they vow will be a series of attempts to use their control of the House of Representatives to defund the health-care overhaul law.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) offered an amendment to the pending bill to fund the final seven months of this year's budget - an amendment that would prohibit administration officials from using any of the money to implement the health-care law. The proposal appears likely to make it into the final version of the budget bill that the House is about to vote on.

But the defunding effort faces two major obstacles: Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and nearly all funds the federal government will need to implement the law were appropriated in the law itself.

The only way to halt the administration's access to those implementation funds is for Congress to enact legislation rescinding them - a virtually impossible task as long as the GOP's majority is limited to the House.

The GOP is trying another strategy: Attach language to all budget bills specifying that none of the operating funds that Congress appropriates for federal agencies can be used to carry out the health-care law.

Technically the money affected is not for the law itself but for each agency's general administrative costs: salaries, stamps, heating bills. But administration officials say that if spending bills are adopted with this proviso, it could effectively bring implementation to a halt.

Richard Sorian, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, used as an example a provision in the law to cover a gap in Medicare's prescription drug benefits. "Even if the funds for seniors' checks are not affected, the salary of the person mailing it out is," Sorian said.

But again, a spending bill with such conditions would almost certainly die in the Senate, or face a presidential veto.

And some analysts say that if Republicans add the restrictive language to the stopgap spending bill, they will set themselves up for a risky standoff, because unless Congress can agree on a budget bill, the government will have to shut down when current funding expires March 4.

"What is the Republicans' endgame?" asked Robert Laszeweski, a former insurance industry executive who runs a consulting firm. "Either they shut down the government and alienate independent voters, or they back down and face a lynch mob from their tea-party base."

Rehberg, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with oversight on health-care spending, said, "It's our duty in the House to do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing."

Republicans could also refuse to fully fund key agencies - such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service - in the budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

And the tables could turn in the Republicans' favor in the years to come if the rollout of the law starts to require not just a maintenance of HHS and other agency budgets but a major ramp-up in hiring and other administrative spending. For instance, the administration's proposed 2012 budget calls for $62.5 million and 65 new hires to start readying the agency to enforce the law's mandate that virtually all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty beginning in 2014.

It's unclear how large such additional operating costs could prove. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that during the next 10 years, the administrative costs of implementation could run from $5 billion to $10รข??billion each for HHS and the IRS. But CBO officials also cautioned that not all of this would necessarily require extra funds. Some could come out of agency operating budgets by shifting funds around.

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