The Republican Party’s ardent campaign against President Obama’s health-care law gained new momentum Wednesday as lawmakers reacted angrily to assertions by an architect of the policy that it was crafted in a deliberately deceptive way in order to pass Congress.
On both sides of the Capitol, leading conservatives said they may call economist Jonathan Gruber to testify about his remarks, which were made last year and surfaced this week in a video on social media. In the video, Gruber suggests that the administration’s signature health-care legislation passed in part because of the “stupidity of the American voter” and a “lack of transparency” over its funding mechanisms.
“The strategy was to hide the truth from the American people,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is slated to chair the Senate Budget Committee next year. “That is a threat to the American republic.”
Gruber has been a complicated figure in the history of the health-care law. He helped the Obama administration craft the measure and has been a leading advocate of it, but he has also made sporadic comments sparking political brush fires that have been problematic for the law’s supporters.
The White House sought Wednesday to distance itself from Gruber and his comments.
“The Affordable Care Act was publicly debated over the course of 14 months, with dozens of Congressional hearings, and countless town halls, speeches, and debates,” White House spokeswoman Jessica Santillo said in a statement. “The tax credits in the law that help millions of middle class Americans afford coverage were no secret, and in fact were central to the legislation. Not only do we disagree with [Gruber’s] comments, they’re simply not true.”
An administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity sought to play down Gruber’s role in developing the law, noting that he “did not work in the White House.”
In the recently disseminated video, Gruber expresses frustration with the political process surrounding the law rather than with the law itself. Nevertheless, the clip has again made the health-care law a primary focus for congressional Republicans, even after an election in which the party played down its zeal to repeal it. While health care was an issue often mentioned by Republicans, it was not a central one in the closing arguments for many Senate candidates. House GOP leaders, who had long planned to roll out an alternative health-care bill, moved away from that idea months ahead of the election, choosing instead to focus on the economy and the president’s leadership.
Now, rank-and-file conservatives and their grass-roots supporters are using the Gruber video to pressure congressional leaders to be more aggressive in coming weeks in their efforts to dismantle the law. There is a growing sense among Republicans that in spite of the challenges of fully repealing the law, they could make progress in undoing parts of it should the president and his associates lose credibility with voters.
“This gives us ammunition to make fundamental changes to the law,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview Wednesday.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and an influential tea party voice, said House Republicans may hold hearings on the matter, given the intensity of the reaction.
Jordan said that House Republicans have been e-mailing and texting one another about it all week and that he expects the interest in “bringing [Gruber] up here to talk” will gain traction.
“I just had a colleague text me saying, ‘We’ve got to look into this!” Jordan said as he glanced at his phone outside the House chamber Wednesday morning.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said the House leadership is also closely monitoring reaction to the video. “[Gruber’s] comments are a sad reminder that this awful law was passed in the worst possible way, with lies, secrecy and more lies from Washington Democrats,” he said in an e-mail.
According to his allies, Boehner plans to gauge the reaction among his members Thursday morning at a closed-door conference meeting at the Capitol. He is said to see the Gruber backlash as a potentially useful cudgel, but he is not yet sure how to use it.
Aides to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the probable majority leader was also well aware of the video and planned to discuss it with senators this week.
McConnell has pledged to hold a vote on a bill to fully repeal the health-care law, but he has been vague about how he will do it.
According to senior Senate Republican aides who requested anonymity to speak freely, McConnell is looking at a variety of strategies. One includes using reconciliation — a fast-track process that enables some bills to pass with just 51 votes — to eliminate provisions in the law. But because of the way the reconciliation process is structured, McConnell would be unable to use it to eliminate the entire law. To do that, he would need Democratic support to reach 60 votes and overcome a filibuster.
Conservative leaders with outside groups such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund have encouraged McConnell to use reconciliation as a means of passing a repeal proposal. How McConnell moves forward will be one of his first tests with a conservative wing of the GOP that is elated about the party’s Election Day rout but wary of McConnell’s tactics and his level of commitment to making repeal the party’s chief goal.
McConnell is not expected to make a decision until he gathers his entire conference for a series of policy lunches.
Several Senate Democrats said Wednesday they were unaware of Gruber’s comments and declined to speculate on the political consequences. Even with their losses in last week’s elections, Democrats maintain enough votes to block most health-care-related legislation from coming to a vote, and President Obama could still veto anything that reaches his desk.
The backlash to Gruber’s comments began Monday when a video of a 2013 panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania that he participated in began to circulate on social media. By late Wednesday, the hashtag “#Gruber” was trending on Twitter.
“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” Gruber said during the discussion. “And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”
Gruber apologized for his remarks in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon, calling his comments inappropriate and saying he was speaking “off the cuff.” Gruber did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for an interview.
The clips of the panel discussion were uncovered by Rich Weinstein, a Philadelphia-area investment adviser who said Tuesday he had begun watching hours of footage featuring the experts behind the Affordable Care Act late last year, after his health insurance plan was canceled because it did not meet the requirements of the law.
“These people were showing up on the shows, calling themselves architects of the law,” Weinstein said in an interview with Bloomberg News, pointing to David Cutler, Zeke Emanuel and Gruber, health-care policy experts who had all been involved in the development of the legislation. “I wondered if these guys had some type of paper trail. So I looked into what Dr. Cutler had said and written, and it was generally all about cost control. After I finished with Cutler, I went to Dr. Gruber. I assume I went through every video, every radio interview, every podcast. Every everything.”
This isn’t the first time that remarks by Gruber have hurt the health-care cause. In 2009, at a critical moment during the administration’s efforts to get the law passed, Gruber undercut them by declaring that the legislation “really doesn’t bend the cost curve.” And even as far back as the 2008 presidential campaign, he said that he preferred McCain’s proposal for financing the health-care system, which would have treated health care provided by employers as taxable income.
When it was working on putting together the health law, the Obama administration relied on Gruber’s data and his microsimulation model — which consisted of 15,000 lines of computer code — to get quick estimates of costs and effects of policy proposals. One official involved in the effort said Gruber and his staff of three could provide answers overnight, when it often took weeks to run the same questions through the Office of Management and Budget or the Congressional Budget Office.
Gruber had played a similar role in states across the country — and for leaders of both parties. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican who pushed through a health law in his state, said Gruber’s estimates persuaded him to include a requirement that individuals buy health insurance and to offer subsidies to those who could not afford to do so. Both are elements of the federal law as well.
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.