Senator Chris Murphy is getting lots of attention because he delivered a speech on the Senate floor while brandishing a poster bearing a “shruggie.” That, he says, is the actual GOP contingency plan for the millions who might lose health care if the Supreme Court invalidates subsidies in three dozen states.
But Senator Murphy is wrong. Republicans do have a plan of sorts. As I’ve noted before, Republicans may try to pass a temporary patch for the subsidies, packaged with something like the repeal of the individual mandate, in hopes of drawing a presidential veto — so Republicans can then try to blame Obama for failing to fix the problem.
Today, the Wall Street Journal editorial page helpfully confirms that this idea is very much in circulation, urging Republicans to carry out this strategy. The editorial suggests Republicans rally behind plans such as the one offered by GOP Senator Ron Johnson, which would temporarily grant subsidies to those who lose them. Of course, conservatives may oppose any fix for the subsidies, because that constitutes government spending to expand health coverage and keeps Obamacare going. The Johnson plan would include repeal of the mandate, presumably to get conservatives to support it. Then the grand plan would unfold this way:
President Obama may refuse to sign any subsidies-for-deregulation deal, and he and Hillary Clinton may think they can win by refusing to compromise. But in that case the Johnson plan gives Republicans an answer that is easy to sell and understand, and liberals would then need to explain why they’re willing to deny health insurance simply because they want more political control over insurance.
If Obama vetoes the plan, Republicans have an “easy” way to prosecute the battle that will follow: Claim they offered a reasonable “compromise” designed to spare all those millions of people from getting thrown off of insurance, while lamenting that Obama refused to go along with it, all because of his intransigent refusal to let go of the throbbing black heart of tyranny at the center of his law.
But there are problems with this clever little scheme. First, the mandate is key to making the protections for people with preexisting conditions (which Republicans support, because they are popular) work. Indeed, Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation has suggested that scrapping the mandate, while keeping those protections, could drive up premiums. That in turn could either mean people pay more, or that higher subsidies would be needed to cover that difference, which would mean more government spending. Nicholas Bagley has identified problems that could be even worse. (None of these possibilities appear to trouble Republicans, oddly enough.)
Second, alternatives such as the Johnson plan actually contain the seeds of their own political refutation. The Johnson bill continues subsidies through September of 2017 by offering a simple, half-sentence re-write of the “exchange established by the state” phrase that is at issue before the court. Take out the end-date, and the problem is solved. In other words, the Johnson plan actually reveals how easy it would be to make the problem created by the Court decision go away entirely.
Obviously Republicans are under no obligation to offer this simple fix, or do anything else, if the Court guts subsidies. But what’s being discussed in the Journal editorial is the political fight that will follow. Obama and Democrats will point out how easily this problem can be made to vanish for millions of people — with a half-sentence rewrite. They will also ridicule the GOP claim to wanting to help all those people by pointing out that Republicans have held countless votes to repeal the law entirely, which would yank insurance away from many more millions.
There’s also the question of how Republican governors will react if Congressional Republicans pursue a strategy that is designed to win the political blame game but doesn’t result in a solution.
* STATES SCRAMBLE IN ADVANCE OF GETTING SUBSIDIES GUTTED: Related to the above: The Hill’s Sarah Ferris has an interesting scoop: Some states on the federal exchange are so worried about losing subsidies from the upcoming Supreme Court decision that they are quietly contacting other states with their own exchanges to see about getting onto a multi-state exchange:
Most Republican state leaders have avoided talking about how they would respond to a decision against the use of subsidies on the federal exchange. Behind the scenes, however, many are anxiously contacting states that run their own exchanges.
As I’ve noted before, Republican governors are also signaling that they will ratchet up the pressure on the federal government to fix the problem, which could create an interesting dynamic if GOP Members of Congress are not inclined to act.
* MAJOR FIGHT LOOMS OVER ENVIRONMENT: Coral Davenport scoops that the Obama administration will soon announce a new directive restoring the government’s authority to regulate pollution in many rivers, lakes, and wetlands. The move would be done by executive action, to clarify a portion of the Clean Water Act that confers authority to regulate major bodies of water after Supreme Court decisions created confusion around that authority.
This sets up a major fight between the administration and Republicans and business groups — the move is already being denounced as an executive power grab and threat to private property — that will continue to drive the argument over the environment heading into 2016.
* WHAT HAPPENS IF BULK SPYING SIMPLY EXPIRES? Politico takes a look at what it would mean for spying agencies if the key section of the Patriot Act authorizing NSA bulk surveillance simply expires, as it is set to do. This is now a very real possibility:
McConnell has set up procedural votes on both a two-month extension of the PATRIOT Act and the USA Freedom Act, which will take place Saturday unless opponents like Sen. Rand Paul agree to speed up the schedule. The USA Freedom Act, which passed the House by a vote of 338-88, would rein in the government’s bulk data collection program while reauthorizing the expiring surveillance authorities.
It’s unclear whether either the Patriot Act or the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which would rein in bulk surveillance, have 60 Senate votes, though it seems possible that the horrifying prospect of complete expiration could push more Senators into backing the latter, helping it pass.
* OPPONENTS OF BULK SPYING CLAIM MOMENTUM: Meanwhile, supporters of the U.S.A. Freedom Act say Senate momentum is breaking their way, with libertarian Mike Lee claiming: “We’re building momentum. We’re not there yet but there’s a path. We’re getting more and more support — getting closer to 60 every minute.”
Of course, if this measure can’t get 60 votes, and the relevant section were to expire entirely, civil libertarians would be just fine with that.
* BULK SPYING’S DEFENDERS FLOAT NEW WAY OUT: Senator Richard Burr, who along with Mitch McConnell is one of a shrinking band of defenders of bulk surveillance, floats a new compromise:
Under the North Carolina Republican’s latest offering, the details of which he pledged to make public Friday, there would be a 24-month period to allow for a transition between the current holding of bulk data collected by the government and the records being held by the telephone companies.
Two more years? Remember, this whole program was always supposed to be temporary. So that doesn’t seem like much of a compromise.
* KRUGMAN RIPS ADMINISTRATION OVER TRADE: Paul Krugman has a brutal column tearing into the administration for being dismissive of, and unresponsive to, the valid substantive concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and Fast Track:
International economic agreements are, inevitably, complex, and you don’t want to find out at the last minute — just before an up-or-down, all-or-nothing vote — that a lot of bad stuff has been incorporated into the text. So you want reassurance that the people negotiating the deal are listening to valid concerns, that they are serving the national interest rather than the interests of well-connected corporations. Instead of addressing real concerns, however, the Obama administration has been dismissive, trying to portray skeptics as uninformed hacks who don’t understand the virtues of trade.
I would add that classified substantive briefings the administration has held for Democrats have not allayed their skepticism of the deal, either.