Senate Democrats beat back attempts to defund healthcare law

Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday beat back attempts by Republicans to use the 2013 Labor, Health and Human Services bill to defund President Obama’s healthcare reform.

The bill was reported out to the Senate on a party-line 16-14 vote, a break from the normally bipartisan nature of the spending panel.

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The skirmishes came days before the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether Obama's signature law is unconstitutional due to its requirement that all adults obtain health insurance.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) offered an amendment that would have prevented the administration from hiring any new employees to carry out healthcare reform. That failed on party lines.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) offered an amendment that would block healthcare reform’s Prevention and Public Health Fund from spending any money.  He argued that the funds are being used for lobbying and as a “slush fund.” That too was defeated.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the spending "cardinal" in charge of the bill, argued that attempts to defund the prevention fund were actually impossible through the appropriations process since the funding was already mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

Johnson admitted the amendment was poorly constructed.

Harkin said the bill simply tells the administration exactly how to spend the money.

“When they say it a slush fund … it is impossible ... we know where the money goes,” he said.  Harkin said that the Obama administration has been using its discretion on how to spend the funds since, in 2012, the Senate and House failed to agree to pass detailed instructions (which Harkin had drafted) on how to spend the money.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) offered an amendment to the bill that would prohibit the prevention fund from being used to advertise for the law. He said the Department of Health and Human Services has used $20 million in funds on a publicity campaign to promote the Affordable Care Act. That amendment was defeated.

“I would have preferred to work together to produce a bipartisan bill, as was the norm for so many years on this committee,” Harkin said.

“There are dozens of programs in the bill that I wholeheartedly support,” Shelby said. “I do disagree with the excessive spending in our bill for numerous federal programs that are untested … and unnecessary.”

The panel also defeated by a vote of 15 to 15 an amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have forced the administration to study whether requiring a set list of healthcare benefits will increase average premiums. Blunt noted that the Congressional Budget Office said it would increase premiums by $2,100, despite administration claims that it would not do so.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) withdrew an amendment to take $10 million from the Affordable Care Act funding for suicide prevention after Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) promised to try to find the money elsewhere.

Democrats also defeated an attempt to block the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing the “individual mandate” requirement that all adults obtain health insurance or face a tax penalty. That attempt, on the 2013 Financial Services bill, failed on a party line vote of 16 to 14.

Overall, the spending bill provides $158.8 billion for 2013, $8.8 billion more than the House is expected to provide in its bill, which is heading for a markup as soon as next week.

Most of the markup was consumed by battles over the National Labor Relations Board. A Johnson amendment to defund the NLRB entirely was defeated by a 13-17 vote.

— This story was last updated at 3:13 p.m.