Is Congress trying to exempt its own from Obamacare?

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 2:45 p.m. MDT

If this means, as many think it does, that the federal government will be prohibited from subsidizing their healthcare coverage, then the results for congressional staffers could be devastating. Congressional employees would be left to the exchanges as if they were self-employed or as if they worked for an exempt company, rather than having employer-based insurance.

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Politico caused a bit of a stir this week when it asserted that Congress was in bipartisan negotiations to exempt its employees from Obamacare mandates. That turned out to be an oversimplification, but that didn’t stop twitter and the blogosphere from reacting with glee at the spectacle.

“The talks — which involve Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Obama administration and other top lawmakers — are extraordinarily sensitive,” Politico reported, “with both sides acutely aware of the potential for political fallout from giving carve-outs from the hugely controversial law to 535 lawmakers and thousands of their aides.”

“Unbelievable,” tweeted Brian Beutler at the left-of-center Talking Points Memo.

But according to Ezra Klein at the Washington Post, the truth is somewhat more prosaic. The problem stems from an amendment offered during the Obamacare fight by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, which apparently requires congressional staffers to obtain their health care coverage from the exchanges set up under the new healthcare law.

If this means, as many think it does, that the federal government will be prohibited from subsidizing their healthcare coverage, then the results for congressional staffers could be devastating.

Congressional employees would be left to the exchanges as if they were self-employed or as if they worked for an exempt company, rather than having employer-based insurance.

Grassley's amendment was intended as a "poison pill," meant to embarrass Democratic lawmakers, not actually become part of the law. Democrats, Klein argues, responded by embracing the amendment.

“That’s where the problem comes in,” Klein wrote. “This was an offhand amendment that was supposed to be rejected. It’s not clear that the federal government has the authority to pay for congressional staffers on the exchanges, the way it pays for them now in the federal benefits program. That could lead to a lot of staffers quitting Congress because they can’t afford to shoulder 100 percent of their premiums.”

The assumption behind the Politico article is that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are anxious to protect their own staffers, and thus are willing to offer each other cover to correct this "mistake."

But as the backlash to the Politico piece developed, Boehner took to Twitter, suggesting that Republicans would not cooperate in changing how the law is currently written.

“The fact that Dem leaders want to opt themselves out of ObamaCare shows Sen Baucus isn’t only one who realizes it's a #trainwreck,” Boehner tweeted Thursday morning. “We're not sneaking any language into bills to solve Dems' #hcr problem. The solution to this & other ObamaCare nightmares is #fullrepeal,” Boehner added in another tweet.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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