Government shutdown: John Boehner’s private fight for Hill health subsidiesWith the federal government nearing shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner stood on the House floor Monday and called on his colleagues to vote for a bill banning a “so-called exemption” that lawmakers and staffers receive for their health insurance.
“Why don’t we make sure that every American is treated just like we are?” Boehner asked, seeking to prohibit members of Congress and Capitol Hill aides from getting thousands of dollars in subsidies for their health insurance as they join Obamacare-mandated insurance exchanges.
Yet behind-the-scenes, Boehner and his aides worked for months with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and others, to save these very same, long-standing subsidies, according to documents and e-mails provided to POLITICO. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was also aware of these discussions, the documents show.(Understanding Obamacare: POLITICO's Guide to the Affordable Care Act)
During a five-month period stretching from February to July, Boehner and his aides sought along with Reid’s office to solve what had become a big headache for both of them. They drafted and reviewed a possible legislative fix, as well as continued to push for an administrative one from the Office of Personnel Management.
Boehner aides insist there was never any intention to move legislation through the House to correct the problem.
Boehner and Reid, however, went so far as to ask to meet with President Barack Obama to lobby him personally for help — using a cover story in order to protect the secrecy of the discussions, according to these documents.
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Although the Oval Office session with Obama never came off, a senior Boehner aide spoke directly to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the speaker’s desire to retain the employer contribution for lawmakers and staff.
The issue of whether lawmakers and staff will continue to receive the employer contribution from the federal government — estimated at between $5,000 to $12,000 annually — has become political kryptonite on Capitol Hill. As part of the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers and aides are required to join insurance exchanges that begin operating on Tuesday, the same day the government shut down.
OPM initially ruled that lawmakers and staffers couldn’t receive the subsidies once they went into the exchanges. This caused an uproar in Congress, since lawmakers and aides were going to be treated differently than millions of Americans who receive these same subsidies from their employers. Lawmakers and aides argued they weren’t seeking special treatment, but a level playing field with everyone else.
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Under heavy pressure from Hill Democrats, Obama and top White House aides got personally involved in the dispute. OPM then reversed course and issued a regulation saying the subsidies would go on.
Boehner, however, injected the issue into the government-shutdown debate by attaching a measure to end the subsidies to a House GOP funding bill, which Senate Democrats adamantly oppose.
Boehner’s aides vehemently deny that the speaker’s private efforts contradict his public statements on the issue. They insist Democrats were the ones who enacted Obamacare and it is up to them to address the problem. Boehner said the White House should correct the problem though through an administrative solution, stating that no bill to do so could pass Congress.
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“We always made it clear that the House would not pass any legislative ‘fix,’” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, on Monday night.
“As POLITICO has previously reported, Speaker Boehner was aware that Sen. Reid and the White House were discussing this issue. He was always clear, however, that any ‘fix’ would be a Democratic ‘fix.’ His ‘fix’ is repealing” Obamacare.
(POLITICO's full government shutdown coverage)
But according to several sources in attendance at a mid-July meeting with Reid, Boehner wondered aloud at one point whether he and the Nevada Democrat could quietly slip some language into a bill to end the problem without it receiving any public attention.