Dems, GOP battle over healthcare law as 2013 spending bill advances

Democrats and Republicans clashed Tuesday over President Obama’s signature healthcare reform law as Democrats moved forward with a 2013 spending bill that funds it.

The Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill passed out of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee by a vote of 10 to 7 with the GOP united in its opposition to increased funding for the Affordable Care Act. It heads for a full committee vote on Thursday.

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Protecting the ACA’s funding could be tricky if part of the law is struck down by the Supreme Court later this month.

“We’ll just have to see what the Supreme Court decides and how that plays out. I just don’t know yet,” subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) acknowledged.

He said that a decision by United Healthcare this week to keep some parts of the ACA, such as allowing parental coverage for those 26 and younger, demonstrates the popularity of at least parts of the law.

“It shows there are a lot of things in this healthcare bill that the American people don’t want to give up,” he said. “Defunding the bill means they would have to give it up. Republicans can’t have it both ways, saying they will vote to defund it but they want to keep all these other things.”

Overall the spending bill provides $158.8 billion for 2013 for the departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and related agencies. That $8.8 billion is more than the House is expected to provide in its bill, which is heading for a markup as soon as next week and a major fall battle looms, likely after the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Harkin said the bill is "fiscally responsible" because it adheres to the $1.2 trillion budget cuts in last August’s debt-ceiling deal.

He noted that it keeps funding for home heating assistance and for graduate education, which the White House had proposed cutting.  He also highlighted the increase in Pell Grant college scholarships — to a maximum award of $5,635 — and a doubling of diabetes research funding.

Ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he would never support a bill that funds the ACA. Specifically he objected to an increase in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid budget and for a prevention fund that the GOP calls a “slush fund.”

“The majority of Americans do not want the ACA because they know it will lead to higher taxes and lower quality of care,” he said.

He noted that one “ObamaCare” program would authorize the building of grocery stores in poor neighborhoods.

“I ask my colleagues, does this sound like a job for the federal government?” he said. “These are programs we do not need and cannot afford.”