Murray to Republicans: Don’t even try it

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Holding firm to their “no negotiation” stance, Democrats on Monday warned Republicans they would not accept a debt-ceiling bill that repeals a controversial program in ObamaCare.

House Republicans contend the “risk corridors” provision in the healthcare law amounts to a federal bailout of the insurance industry, and have discussed making its elimination a condition for hiking the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling.

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But Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Democrats would not go along with the GOP’s “political crusade against the Affordable Care Act.”

“Repealing this program would disrupt coverage for millions of Americans who have now gained it thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and would punish families across the country with more uncertainty and higher prices,” Murray said in a statement to The Hill.

House Republicans say they will need “concessions” from Democrats to raise the borrowing limit, but have yet to decide what those might be. At a conference retreat last week, one of several ideas discussed was conditioning the bill on repeal of the risk corridors program.

Top House Republicans emerged from a leadership meeting Monday afternoon saying no decisions had been made on a debt-ceiling measure, and that the issue would be discussed further at a meeting of the full conference on Tuesday morning.

“It’s all about getting to 218,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan.), vice chairwoman of the GOP conference.

The lawmakers said repealing the risk corridors remained an attractive option, but was just one among many. Republicans have also discussed attaching a rider on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, for instance.

Jenkins said it had also not been decided whether to attach a single provision to the debt-ceiling increase or several. “That’s one of the things we’re going to discuss with our members,” Jenkins said.

House Republicans have downplayed expectations for this latest debt-limit fight, conceding that their capitulation to Obama last year has given them a weaker negotiating position.

A host of GOP leaders insisted that a debt default is not in the realm of possibilities, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the recent shutdown fight has left the party with fewer options.

That tempered tone appears to have emboldened Democrats, who are preemptively shooting down the GOP’s ideas.

“The White House and Senate Democrats have been very clear; we will not pay a ransom for raising the debt ceiling, period,” said one Democrat leadership aide.

Democratic stalwarts like Murray are taking a similar line, declaring they are not willing to entertain any GOP riders to the debt limit.

An official for Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he wants to see a clean debt-limit increase sent to the president by the end of the week.

 But Democrats could find themselves put on the defensive if the GOP decides to make a “no bailout” provision central to their debt-ceiling strategy.

While experts say the policies are important for making ObamaCare work, the accusation that Democrats are in cahoots with insurance companies could be politically powerful in an election year.

A kind of insurance policy for insurers, the risk corridors will provide payments to companies that face higher-than-expected costs after enrolling more sick people than they planned. A similar program is part of Medicare Part D, which was passed by Republicans during the George W. Bush administration.

Under the program, the government will collect payments from insurers that do better than expected and pass those funds along to their less fortunate peers. If that money runs out, the government would step in to reimburse insurers, which Republicans say is a likely outcome due to ObamaCare’s problems.

Healthcare experts say the system serves as a “shock absorber” to ensure premiums don’t spike or fluctuate from year to year.

“If you repeal it now, you would take the protection and stability away,” said Jack Hoadley, a research professor at the Georgetown Healthy Policy Institute.

“There would be more volatility from one year to the next. Plans would pull out of the market, or charge a much higher premium in the second year.”

Edwin Park, vice president for Health Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said patients would “inevitably” face higher premiums if the program were repealed.

The idea of eliminating the “insurer bailouts” gained traction this fall after conservative pundits highlighted the program’s presence in the healthcare law.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) bill on this issue has 18 co-sponsors, while Rep. Tim Griffin’s (R-Ark.) companion measure has 56 backers in the House.

The insurance industry has expressed full-throated opposition to the proposal from the GOP — its longtime ally — and mounted a lobbying campaign to stop it.

But the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing on risk corridors Wednesday, underscoring the idea’s growing traction among conservatives. Rubio is expected to testify.

While aides said the House wants to act sooner rather than later with the debt deadline less than a month away, Republicans aren’t showing a sense of urgency.

Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, on Monday said the party might not have a decision after the conference meeting Tuesday, adding that it remained unclear whether the House would vote before leaving for a 12-day recess on Feb. 12.

“I don’t know if we’re going to get it next week or not,” he said.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says the debt limit must be raised by the end of February to prevent the nation from defaulting, and is pressing Congress to act without delay.

“The bottom line is: time is short,” Lew said Monday. “Congress needs to act to extend the borrowing authority for our nation, and it needs to act now.”

Bernie Becker and Russell Berman contributed to this report.

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