- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Conservatives openly rebelled Tuesday over Republican leaders’ Obamacare plans, saying voters don’t want Congress to replace President Obama’s costly entitlement program with a massive GOP version.

Their concerns, which had simmered for weeks, erupted as leaders of key factions in the House, and three high-profile Republicans in the Senate called GOP leaders’ current proposals “Obamacare lite” and said approving anything short of a complete repeal would betray voters.

“They didn’t tell us to repeal it but keep the Medicaid expansion. They didn’t tell us to repeal it but keep the tax increases. They didn’t tell us to repeal it but create a whole new entitlement program,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said.

In his first major address to Congress, President Trump on Tuesday endorsed the use of tax credits to buy “the plan they want,” and not one “forced on them” by government regulations.

GOP leaders are struggling to find unity, with more moderate Republicans saying some parts of Obamacare such as the Medicaid expansion should be kept, and some in the GOP suggesting they keep the revenue that flowed from Obamacare’s tax increases to ease the transition to their own plan.

Conservatives, though, are wary of keeping the taxes.

Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the influential House Freedom Caucus, said keeping some form of a tax on some high-value health plans to pay for tax credits for others to buy insurance would strain middle-class families.

The conservatives’ revolt is the starkest challenge yet to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his committee chairmen who’ve been trying to strike a final agreement.

Mr. Ryan downplayed any rift within the party, saying the plan he’s working on had wide appeal during the campaign.

“I think you’re going to have a lot of churning on any kind of legislative product like this,” he said. “This is a plan that we are all working on together — the House, the Senate, the White House. So there aren’t rival plans here.”

Republican leaders are under intense pressure to send a repeal-and-replace bill to President Trump by the Easter break, so Congress can move onto tax reform and other fights, such as funding Mr. Trump’s border wall.

Democrats are refusing to help Republicans kill their signature health law, so GOP leaders can’t afford to lose more than 22 of their House members or three votes in the Senate, where they hold 52-seat majority.

Asked how many members would likely oppose the current plan, Mr. Meadows said: “A lot more than 22.”

Mr. Meadows and Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, another influential conservative caucus, balked at an early draft of the GOP bill.

Meanwhile three Senate Republicans — Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — said Tuesday the party should be focused on repealing Obamacare, rather than getting bogged down in the replacement.

“This is what we won elections over in 2010, 2014 and 2016,” Mr. Paul said.

House leaders said the party would come around as they fine-tuned the plan in the coming weeks and received feedback from the Congressional Budget Office on how their plans would affect coverage, federal spending and deficits.

“When we get everything done and right we’re going to be unified on this,” Mr. Ryan said.

His plan would replace Obamacare’s exchanges and income-based subsidies with tax credits based on age, while unwinding generous federal funding for states that expanded their Medicaid populations under President Obama. It also bolsters tax-advantaged health savings accounts and would unwind Obamacare’s strict coverage requirement, so people could find cheaper plans that cover what they want.

The GOP wants to pay for its plan by taxing a portion of particular generous employer-sponsored health plans. That will likely rankle labor unions who fought Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” on generous health plans, though Mr. Ryan said it is time to treat Americans equally, since job-based insurance is shielded from taxation.

“The current tax system discriminates against people who don’t get health care at work,” Mr. Ryan said.

Under the GOP plan, a person aged 30 or younger would receive subsidies of about $2,000, while someone over 60 would receive double that.

Democrats have argued the tax credits won’t be generous enough, leading to fewer covered people.

Mr. Meadows said the change is “bad policy” that, rather than addressing health costs directly, shifts them around, even to people who don’t need help.

“Assuming you pay taxes,” he told reporters, “should I take money from you and give it to a millionaire, so they can buy insurance?”

But Mr. Ryan said the tax credits shouldn’t be a shock to Republicans who signed onto a similar plan by Tom Price, a former congressman from Georgia who now leads Mr. Trump’s Health and Human Services Department.

His plan was the basis for the House GOP’s “Better Way” program, which attracted broad party consensus during last year’s campaign.

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