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GOP wants decision overturned on taxpayer subsidies for Obamacare for Congress, staff

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A growing chorus of Republican lawmakers is calling on the Obama administration to reverse its decision to let members of Congress and their staffs use taxpayer money to buy insurance under the new health care law, setting up a politically touchy debate as more of the law takes effect.

The lawmakers have unveiled draft bills in both the House and Senate they say would force members of Congress to experience Obamacare the same way many average Americans will — having to pay out-of-pocket for insurance in state-based exchanges.

"As long as Obamacare remains law, members of Congress should not receive exchange subsidies that are not provided to other Americans," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, who plans to introduce the No Obamacare Subsidies for Congress Act of 2013 once lawmakers return from their summer vacation.

The way the Affordable Care Act is written, members of Congress and staffers in their personal offices have to leave the government-sponsored Federal Employment Health Benefits Program and go into the exchanges to buy insurance.

But the Obama administration ruled they can still get taxpayer money to cover up to 75 percent of their premiums — though there are still plenty of unanswered questions about how the situation will work.

Critics said the special arrangement gives Congress a leg up on average Americans, who won't get the same kind of federal support, and they are searching for ways to spread the pain around.

"It stands to reason that if your administration and the Democratic majorities then in Congress drafted, passed, and enacted a law so ill-conceived and poorly constructed that members of Congress and congressional staff didn't understand the law's impact on themselves, then of course you couldn't appreciate its impact on 300 million Americans," Rep. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said in a recent letter to Mr. Obama.

One solution some in the GOP are floating is to force President Obama and his political appointees to ditch their government-sponsored plans and join the state exchanges.

Another option would be to overturn the Office of Personnel Management's decision to let congressional employees keep their employer-paid contributions.

One quirk of the health care law is that it only forces members of Congress and their personal office aides into the exchanges, but their not committee aides.

Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming have proposed a bill that would prohibit members of Congress from designating who is an "official" staff member, which they said would mean all staffers would be pushed into the exchanges.

Their bill also would expand the roster of Washington officials who must enter the exchanges and ban lawmakers from receiving employer-contribution government subsidies or tax credits to defray their health costs.

Mrs. Capito's bill would strip all forms of government subsidies from lawmakers.

Republicans say that they would prefer to scrap the entire bill — but in the meantime, that these solutions are only fair.

"If the exchanges actually go into effect, Congress should pass a law to put White House and congressional leadership in the exchanges," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who first proposed making members of Congress take part.

But a spokesman for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, Josh Drobnyk, pointed to an October 2012 memo from Mr. Grassley's office that suggests the amendment's author never intended to tinker with the federal contribution.

The memo, which sought to clarify media reports on his amendment, noted: "Senator Grassley said his provision, even in the final form it took in the law that was enacted makes no changes to the employer contribution to federal employee health care coverage and no changes to federal retiree health care."

It is unclear whether Congress will be able to address the problem when it resumes business this month after the August recess. Only 28 days remain until the health exchanges open for business, although open enrollment will run through March.

"In normal times, Congress would have passed a technical amendments bill and they would have straightened out these things," said Timothy Jost, a health care reform specialist at Washington and Lee University School of Law. "But we're not living in normal times."

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