Score one for D.C.
The Senate rejected Sen. Ted Cruz’s effort to block the District from requiring that most residents have health insurance, thwarting — for now — Republican efforts to rein in the city’s government.
Senators from both parties on Wednesday effectively killed a measure sponsored by Cruz (R-Tex.) that would have eliminated the District’s version of the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act.
The action represents a victory for city officials in their quest to reduce congressional meddling in D.C. affairs — what Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) calls “attacks on our local autonomy.”
“Senator Ted Cruz — who otherwise loathes federal government intrusion — launched the most recent attempt to undermine the will of Washingtonians, and we are grateful that a bipartisan majority in the Senate tabled his amendment,” Bowser said in a statement.
Senators did not act on most of the measures passed by the more conservative House that would interfere with laws or policies passed by D.C. lawmakers.
Those measures include an amendment similar to Cruz’s repeal of the D.C. individual health insurance mandate, a provision that would block the city’s assisted-suicide law, another that would allow employers to discriminate against workers based on their reproductive health decisions, and a measure that would repeal the District’s right to spend its own local tax dollars.
However, the House and Senate spending bills both include two measures that affect D.C. autonomy. One would block city funding to subsidize abortions for low-income women, and the other would prevent the city from regulating the sale of recreational marijuana.
From here, the House and Senate will work to reconcile their spending plans before government funding expires at midnight Sept. 30.
Elected officials in the overwhelmingly Democratic city have complained for years that Republican members of Congress overstep their authority over the nation’s capital to wage proxy political battles.
During debate on the Senate floor, Cruz trumpeted the repeal of the individual mandate as part of tax cut legislation enacted last year and painted the District’s mandate penalty as a tax increase on low-income city residents.
“Sadly, the reaction of Democratic politicians in the District of Columbia is to reimpose those fines on the poorest residents in D.C.,” Cruz said.
But Mila Kofman, executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, said low-
income residents in the District are automatically exempt from the individual mandate.
Recipients of Medicaid and other health-care programs for the poor are not subject to the mandate penalty.
The rate of uninsured D.C. residents was cut in half after the ACA was enacted, from 7.6 percent in 2010 to 3.8 percent in 2015, according to a report last year by the D.C. Auditor’s Office. The bulk of those who benefited were Medicaid participants.
Several states, including Vermont — home to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee — enacted their own mandates set to take effect in January when the federal requirement ends.
“Just like Vermont, D.C. should have the authority to make its own laws,” Leahy said on the floor. “All those people who claim we must have states’ rights — well, here we’re telling the District of Columbia, ‘We’ll tell you what to do.’ That’s not democracy.”
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he would vote to kill Cruz’s rider “with reluctance” to keep the appropriations process moving.
The measure died, 54 to 44, with five Republicans joining the opposition to it.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, thanked Leahy and said her fight against the remaining two riders will continue.
“I will be working hard as the House and Senate prepare to go to conference to ensure the House-passed D.C. riders do not make it into the final spending bill,” she said.