Republicans debate keeping ObamaCare subsidies until 2017

Congressional Republicans are locked in a debate about whether to temporarily keep in place the ObamaCare subsidies that are at risk of being struck down at the Supreme Court.

More than a half-dozen competing plans have already been put forward in response to the King v. Burwell case, and Republicans are anxious to unify behind one before the ruling comes down in June.

The stakes are high, as a ruling against the healthcare law could strip federal aid from an estimated 7.5 million people ahead of the 2016 elections — people in Republican-leaning states would be hit particularly hard.

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But the push to find a “backup plan” for ObamaCare is meeting resistance on the right, with conservative groups viewing it as a capitulation to a law that they want to repeal root and branch.

Still, Republicans in Congress broadly agree that they need to have a plan ready if the high court strikes down the ObamaCare subsidies, though they have yet to determine exactly what it will be.

"I think it will be extraordinarily difficult,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a deputy majority whip, about the party reaching a final plan. “That’s why I’m glad I’m just a humble appropriator.”

A new proposal put forward this week by Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonSenate report: Systematic failures at VA watchdog led to veterans' deaths Clinton emails dominate Sunday shows GOP senator: Did Clinton email setup play a role in Russian invasions? MORE (R-Wis.), who is up for reelection in 2016, would allow people to keep their ObamaCare plans and subsidies until 2017, when the party hopes a Republican president will be able to enact more sweeping changes from the White House.

That approach runs counter to a plan from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) that would help people who lose subsidies by giving them new tax credits that diminish over time. Sasse says his plan would not “resuscitate” ObamaCare because it wouldn’t keep the old subsidies in place.

Asked why his plan is better than Sasse’s, Johnson told reporters Thursday, “It’s just simpler,” arguing it does not require a new system of tax credits.

“It wasn't without risk, going out there and just by myself laying out a plan that doesn't completely repeal ObamaCare,” Johnson said. But he added the plan has gotten a surprisingly high 30 co-sponsors, including members of Senate leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Trail 2016: Biting the hand that feeds him McConnell: Trump should release his tax returns Adelson aides in talks to make pro-Trump super PAC MORE (R-Ky.) supports both Sasse’s plan and Johnson’s plan, spokesman Don Stewart said.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn BarrassoRepublican senator expects Trump will 'embrace' GOP platform Sunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on Overnight Healthcare: House loosens pesticide rules to fight Zika | A GOP bill that keeps some of ObamaCare | More proof of pending premium hikes MORE (R-Wyo.), who leads the Senate’s working group on King v. Burwell, has also signed on to multiple competing plans. He is a co-sponsor of Johnson’s bill, as well as a separate bill from Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzJudge unseals documents on Trump University GOP senators move to keep women out of military draft GOP senators split over Cruz's aid on campaign trail MORE (R-Texas) that focuses on repealing much of ObamaCare.

“There are a number of different proposals out there, but all of them say … we want to protect those people for a period of time until we can get the decision to be made at the state level,” Barrasso said in an interview Thursday, while downplaying the party’s internal debate about whether to extend ObamaCare subsidies.

“I think you can define it how you want, but we want to make sure those people are protected as we transition away from the healthcare law,” Barrasso said.

A separate group of House Republicans has also been meeting, and has outlined a plan that includes permanent tax credits to help people buy insurance, while allowing states to opt out of ObamaCare’s mandates.

That working group, including House Ways and Means Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanLobbying World New York Times editors back Puerto Rico bill GOP senator to Ryan: 'Trump is where the Republicans are’ MORE (R-Wis.), has remained quiet on whether to offer a type of temporary financial assistance to those who lose subsidies, as Sasse’s and Johnson’s plans would.

The group will face new pressure next month when the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) also weighs in on the issue.

The RSC’s leaders, Reps. Bill FloresBill FloresIn House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable Ryan secures big win with bipartisan Puerto Rico deal Overnight Finance: GOP's budget 'SWAT' team | What to watch at IRS impeachment hearing | Sanders bucks Dem leaders on Puerto Rico bill MORE (R-Texas) and Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), said in separate interviews Thursday that they are preparing to release a new ObamaCare alternative in mid-May, which they hope will help shape the party’s response to the high court’s ruling.

Both say they have not yet decided whether to support an extension of ObamaCare subsidies.

Flores stressed that Republicans needed to have a full replacement plan for ObamaCare before determining how to transition away from the law.

“I’m not saying there should absolutely not be a bridge, I’m not saying there should absolutely be a bridge,” Flores said. “If we start building toward a shore, but we don’t know what that shore is, then the bridge might not work very well.”

Roe said he has heard little about the House working group’s plans, and is urging House leadership to include more members — particularly from the GOP Doctors Caucus, of which he is co-chairman — in the discussions.

“I haven’t punched the panic button yet, but time is short and this is not something that we can discuss in a one-hour caucus and get buy-in on it,” he said. “We have two legislative weeks in May, and then boom, June will be on us.”

The three-person House group has been more closed off than the Senate’s, which has been open to all GOP members. About half of Republican senators have attended at least one meeting, Barrasso said.

Ryan has said that he intends to have a plan introduced and scored by the Congressional Budget Office before the court’s ruling is announced. The Senate group has not provided a firm timeline.  

Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said the leader is still “reviewing other proposals” besides Sasse’s and Johnson’s, and stressed that the committees of jurisdiction are continuing to work.

Asked if he thought the Senate would pick one approach before or after the court ruling comes down in June, Stewart declined to make a prediction.