Conservative lawmakers Wednesday questioned both the motives and the legality of President Obama’s decision to halt the employer mandate, a key part of his new health insurance law, until after the 2014 elections.
The delay, announced Tuesday, could insulate Democrats from the politically potent issue of “Obamacare” on the campaign trail, but the sudden maneuver is causing headaches in the short term.
Right-leaning politicians and groups attacked Mr. Obama from both sides of the issue Wednesday, saying the decision was “welcome news” for businesses while questioning if the White House had any right to delay the mandate.
“If President Obama wants to make changes to Obamacare, he must come to Congress,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.
The mandate in question requires businesses with more than 50 workers to offer insurance to all full-time employees, or else pay a fine of $2,000 per worker.
In statements Tuesday evening, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Mark J. Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury, said the decision was made after business leaders expressed concern about the mandate’s complex reporting requirements.
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Republican and Democratic observers agreed the decision to put off the mandate for an additional year, to 2015, is a setback for the Obama administration and provides Republican lawmakers with ammunition in their bid to dismantle the president’s signature domestic achievement.
House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said they are launching an investigation into the decision, arguing the Obama administration consulted with business leaders behind closed doors.
While conservatives make hay with the announcement, portraying it as a sign of the law’s fragility, the delay is likely to “reduce the Republican arsenal of arrows” ahead of the 2014 elections, Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said.
He said most people don’t follow the finer points of Obamacare on a daily basis, so they will not use it to punish Democrats at the polls “until they get dinged by the train wreck.”
Republicans have employed “train wreck” as short-hand for the law’s impact ever since one of the Affordable Care Act’s key Democratic authors used the term in discussing its implementation. This week, the National Republican Congressional Committee blogged about the employer-mandate decision next to a photo of a derailed Thomas the Tank Engine toy.
For its part, the White House said it was just trying to be flexible and respond to business owners’ feedback.
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David Axelrod, a former adviser to Mr. Obama, told MSNBC that the administration always knew the implementation was “not going to be smooth,” and blamed Republican leaders for trying to dismantle the reforms at every turn.
Health analysts said despite the partisan furor, the decision will have a minimal effect on everyday Americans.
“I think it’s mostly in the political arena,” Caroline Pearson, a vice president at Avalere Health, a Washington-based advisory company, said of the decision’s impact.
Analysts say employees who were poised to obtain health benefits because of the mandate can either afford individual coverage or, if their income is low enough, will qualify for government subsidies to buy health plans on the state-by-state exchanges set up by Mr. Obama’s law.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not covered by the mandate. And in 2012, 95 percent of employers with at least 50 workers offered health benefits, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Yet the business community lobbied heavily against the mandate, and Republican lawmakers called it a “job killer” amid reports that companies, and even local government agencies and schools, were cutting employees or limiting hours to avoid the mandate’s thresholds.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said one of the “biggest beneficiaries” of the decision with be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is up for re-election.
“To be clear, I don’t think that the issues will move very many voters,” he said. “But this will give [Mr. McConnell] and his campaign some new talking points to use as they demagogue their way towards the 2014 elections.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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