Here Comes the Big Intra-GOP Fight Over Obamacare Subsidies

It’s been obvious for a while that congressional Republicans will be placed in a difficult position if SCOTUS strikes down subsidies for health insurance purchases under the Affordable Care Act in states that did not create their own exchanges. On the one hand, they’ll be blamed for failure to do something about the consequent loss of insurance and/or increases in premiums (at least in states that do nothing about it, either), when a one-sentence law confirming the original understanding virtually everyone had about the universal availability of subsidies would suffice. On the other hand, any reaction to such a SCOTUS decision that does not at least begin with an all-night kegger-and-prayer-vigil in celebration of this blow against tyranny will rile up The Base into a hate frenzy. Theoretically, GOPers could be ready with a full-fledged Obamacare Replacement bill that could be presented to the president on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, but despite having five years to come up with such a creature, that ain’t happening.

So as TPM’s Sahil Kapur explains today, Sen. Ron Johnson has introduced a bill, which the Senate GOP leadership has quietly gotten behind, that would extend the Obamacare subsidies until the end of 2017, in exchange for some key concessions to conservatives that fall vastly short of an alternative structure for health care reform.

The Senate’s top five Republican leaders have cosponsored legislation to extend until 2017 the Obamacare insurance subsidies that may be struck down by the Supreme Court this summer

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The legislation, offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), one of the most politically vulnerable Senate incumbents in 2016, would maintain the federal HealthCare.gov tax credits at stake in King v. Burwell through the end of August 2017.

The bill was unveiled this week with 29 other cosponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his four top deputies, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), John Thune (R-SD), John Barrasso (R-WY) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). Another cosponsor is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the chairman of the conference’s electoral arm.

Such a move would seek to protect the GOP from political peril in the 2016 elections when Democrats would try to blame the party for stripping subsidies — and maybe insurance coverage — from millions of Americans in three dozen states. A defeat for the Obama administration in a King ruling would likely create havoc across insurance markets and pose a huge problem for Republicans, many of whom have been pushing the Supreme Court to nix the subsidies.

Given the certainty that this proposal will split Republicans, what are the odds Democrats would go along with this semi-“fix.”?

Democrats would probably demand a fix to make the subsidies permanently available if they go down. But they would be hard-pressed to vote down a bill to temporarily extend them if Republicans were to bring it up.

That may depend, however, on what happens to provisions Kapur calls “sweeteners” for conservatives, including elimination of Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates, and perhaps even more crucially, of the ACA’s minimum benefit requirements. Kapur seems to anticipate, and some conservative critics agree, that Republicans would cave on most of these “sweeterners” in exchange for Democrats agreeing to a temporary instead of a permanent extension of subsidies.

But you will note that the cosponsors of Johnson’s bill do not include Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Marco Rubio, who will likely be focused on the Iowa Straw Poll at the time the decision comes down. There’s also a competing Senate bill from Ben Sasse that would instead of extending the subsidies replace them with simple tax credits for insurance purchasing that would fade away over time. And there are, according to The Hill‘s Sullivan and Ferris, several plans percolating in the House that would replace the subsidies with our without some “bridge” offering temporary relief. You can judge how much consensus there is from this remark by Republican Study Committee co-chair Bill Flores of Texas, who is one of the people working on one of the many plans:

“I’m not saying there should absolutely not be a bridge, I’m not saying there should absolutely be a bridge,” Flores said. “If we start building toward a shore, but we don’t know what that shore is, then the bridge might not work very well.”

I think we can all agree on that. And that is why despite everything you will hear from them before and after SCOTUS rules, there’s probably no group of people more avidly if silently cheering for Obama to win this case than are congressional Republicans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.