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HHS Chief Says Obama Would Reject GOP Reply to Health Law Case

By Melissa Attias, CQ Roll Call

June 10, 2015 -- President Barack Obama would not sign a leading GOP measure that outlines a congressional response if the Supreme Court rules against the availability of subsidies in federal marketplace states because it is tantamount to repealing the 2010 health law, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

Burwell told the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday that the Obama administration considers legislation (S 1016) introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to be a de facto repeal of the overhaul because it removes protections for people with preexisting conditions and takes away subsidies from everyone over time, among other issues.

The bill would also repeal the mandate that most individuals have health coverage and that employers offer it or pay a penalty, while extending subsidies through August 2017 for recipients in 34 states that use the federal insurance exchange. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the language of the health law allows subsidies to be distributed in those states by the end of the month in the case, King v. Burwell.

"That is a bill that, from our perspective, is repeal," Burwell said. "We've spoken to the issue of something that repeals the Affordable Care Act, something that the president will not sign."

Burwell's comments foreshadow how difficult it would be for Republican lawmakers and the Obama White House to agree on a solution in the potential aftermath of any Supreme Court ruling against the administration. While Democrats can be expected to rally behind legislation adjusting the statute to allow the federal exchange subsidies to continue, any Republican plan is almost guaranteed to take swipes at the law's other provisions.

Among the 31 GOP cosponsors of the Johnson bill are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah. Hatch is also part of a trio of Senate leaders working on a separate response, paralleled by a similar effort from House GOP committee chairmen. A number of other Republicans have introduced their own bills.

Top Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee also repeatedly pressed Burwell on how Obama would respond to a court ruling that takes away subsidies from people in the 34 states.

Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin asked whether the president would dictate a response or be willing to work with Congress if the high court sides with the plaintiffs, maintaining there is a good chance that case will not go the administration's way.

"If the court makes that decision, we're going to do everything we can and we're working to make sure we're ready to communicate, to work with states and do everything we can," Burwell said. But she added that "the critical decisions will sit with the Congress and states and governors to determine if those subsidies are available."

Health Subcommittee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, also pressed Burwell on whether Obama would sign legislation that takes an approach other than a straight extension of the subsidies for federal exchange states. Burwell declined to commit.

Democrats emphasized how Congress could quickly pass a simple fix to the court decision if lawmakers were willing. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said "it would not be rocket science" to make changes to line up the statute with the law's intent. "I think the committee could take one weekend and fix it and move on," he said.

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