This Single Program In Obamacare Could Lead To Another Shutdown Showdown

Marco Rubio Ron JohnsonAPSens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)

Senate Republicans are gearing up for a fight over the Affordable Care Act in the lame-duck session of Congress — and it could set up a replay of last year’s federal government shutdown.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday that was also signed by 13 other Republican senators. In the letter, Rubio and the other senators urged Boehner to use the stopgap spending bill to prohibit “unappropriated and unauthorised funds” from going toward a risk-corridor program in the healthcare law.

The stopgap spending bill needs to be passed by Dec. 11 to avert a government shutdown. This means there could be another shutdown showdown Congress is in session during the month between the midterm elections and the deadline if Boehner uses the strategy outlined in Rubio’s letter.

“We must act to protect Congress’ power of the purse and prohibit the Obama administration from dispersing unlawful risk corridor payments providing for an Obamacare taxpayer bailout,” the senators wrote.

Republicans have charged the risk-corridor program could serve as a potential “bailout” of insurance companies. The “risk corridors” in question aim to make it easier for insurance companies to transition to the new health-care system, largely by making it less financially risky for them to sell new insurance plans on the government exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act.

The risk corridors are a temporary program that expire in 2016. Until then, the risk corridors are set up so that the government would compensate insurance companies that have bigger costs than they expected while transitioning to the new system. This provision is designed to protect insurers that see an especially unhealthy pool of customers and end up with higher claims than expected.

The program exists because, under an unprecedented overhaul of the federal healthcare system, insurers’ cost of providing health insurance to an expansive new slate of customers was hard to predict.

The Department of Health and Human Services has said the risk-corridor program’s payments are “user fees,” and the administration has the authority to oversee the program and its funds. However, a recent decision from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, which the Republican senators pointed to in their letter, held that the funds for the risk-corridor program must be appropriated by Congress.

“Without that appropriation, any money spent to cover insurance company losses under the risk corridor program would be unlawful,” the senators wrote. “… Unfortunately, President Obama and his administration have exhibited their intent to disregard the law and ignore the Constitution.”

The other signatories on the letter were Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, John McCain of Arizona, John Barrasso of Wyoming, David Vitter of Louisiana, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Boozman of Arkansas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Democrats immediately pounced on the letter, calling it reminiscent of the playbook that led down the road to the first federal government shutdown in 17 years in October 2013. But the goals for Republicans this time would be much smaller. Last year, they sought to defund all discretionary spending for Obamacare. This fight is aimed at taking away funds from just a single program.

“The latest Republican shutdown threat proves the GOP learned nothing from last year’s Tea Party tantrum that cost the U.S. economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “It’s time for Speaker Boehner to stop monkeying around and put an end to the reckless shutdown talk.”

Boehner’s office declined to comment on the letter. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The result of the elections could add another wrinkle into the potential battle — particularly if Republicans retake control of the Senate. If Republicans flip enough seats to gain a majority on Election Day, it could encourage the more conservative Republican flanks in both chambers of Congress.

But Senate control could also be unknown on Election Day. There could be December and January runoffs in Georgia if neither candidate in each race gets more than 50% of the vote on Election Day. If that’s the case, then Republicans might be more inclined to back off of a similar fight that led to major damage for the GOP brand last time around.

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