Lew Says Republicans Should ’Get Over’ Health Law Debate

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew
White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said Republican attacks on President Barack Obama’s health-care law as a tax are rehashing old arguments, as Republican leaders in Congress vow to keep up a drive to repeal it.

“What the American people don’t want is they don’t want to be taken back to the old divisive debate,” Lew said on CNN yesterday. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of the law’s central feature, a mandate requiring most Americans to carry health insurance or pay a penalty. Lew said the public wants its government to “get over the debate and implement the law.”

In Massachusetts, where former Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, implemented a similar law, just 1 percent of the population is subject to the penalty, Lew said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Republican lawmakers and allies including the anti-tax Club for Growth are shifting from attacking the constitutionality of the law’s requirement that Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty to emphasizing its tax implications for millions of Americans.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said yesterday that Republicans will make repealing the law their top priority if they win control of the Senate. In the House, Speaker John Boehner also vowed to repeal the law in full, even as he described some of its provisions as “sound.”

Tax Label

Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined four more-liberal justices in upholding the law, wrote that the penalty imposed on those who fail to buy health insurance was a form of tax, which is constitutionally within congressional power.

“The Supreme Court, which has the final say, says it is a tax,” McConnell said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. Republicans, who control the House, said they would hold a vote to repeal the act on July 11, though there’s no chance they can succeed as long as Democrats control the Senate and the president is there to veto a bill.

“We’ve got one last chance here to defeat Obamacare, we can do that in the November election” by winning control of the U.S. Senate and the White House, said McConnell.

“While the Court upheld it as constitutional, they certainly didn’t say that it was a good law,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program in an interview. “It has to be ripped out and we need to start over.”

Political Concern

The Senate elections will be a referendum on the law and if Republicans win control, they can pass a bill through the chamber repealing it under so-called reconciliation rules, said McConnell. That means only 51 votes would be needed for approval instead of the 60 required under normal protocol. “Reconciliation is available because the Supreme Court has now declared it a tax,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said yesterday that the penalty imposed in the health-care law on those who don’t buy insurance isn’t a tax.

“No, no, no, no,” Pelosi said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” insisting that Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s winning argument that the health-care overhaul was constitutional under Congress’s taxing authority hasn’t put Democrats in a bind.

“It’s not a tax on the American people -- it’s a penalty for free riders,” she said. Pelosi said the penalty would fall on perhaps 1 percent of the population who, because they don’t buy health insurance, “make it more expensive.”

Expanding Coverage

Pelosi said that while Democrats can do a better job of communicating the law’s benefits, there won’t be any backtracking on the overhaul as Republicans have vowed to do by repealing it.

“I think that part of it is over,” Pelosi said. “As far as we’re concerned, the victory is there for the American people.”

The law, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and dubbed “Obamacare” by Republicans, represents the biggest change to the U.S. health system since Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965.

It was designed to expand coverage to at least 30 million people and has already begun to transform an industry that makes up 18 percent of the nation’s economy.

Asked what Republicans would do to provide universal health coverage to an estimated 30 million uninsured Americans, McConnell said “that is not the issue.”

Improvements Sought

The U.S. health-care system is “already the finest health-care system in the world,” McConnell said on Fox’s Sunday program. “We’re not going to turn the American health-care system into a Western European system,” said McConnell.

“We need to go step by step to replace it with more modest reforms,” he said. “We will not take a meat axe to the American health-care system, we will pull out a scalpel and go step by step.” McConnell cited efforts to permit interstate sales of health insurance that Republicans say would increase competition and lower costs, and lawsuit overhaul.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said the law won’t fix spiraling health-care costs that are the biggest challenge facing lawmakers.

“The affordable care act fixes a lot of symptoms and not the disease,” said Coburn, a Republican. “The disease is health care costs too much.”

New Benefits

Lew, speaking in a separate interview on ABC’s “This Week” program, said the law will become more popular as it is given time to take effect. “The American people are starting to experience the benefits,” he said.

Under the law, college graduates can remain on their parents health insurance until age 26, parents with children with serious conditions won’t have to worry their benefits will be capped, individuals with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied care and the elderly won’t have to be as concerned about gaps in coverage, said Lew.

Boehner said he supported letting people under 26 stay on their parents’ insurance when out of a job, one of the measures included in the law. Though he said many of the provisions can be replaced.

A poll released on the day of the decision shows the country is evenly divided over the wisdom of the court’s judgment.

The USA Today/Gallup poll showed 46 percent agreed with the court’s ruling and 46 percent disagreed, with independent voters splitting 45 percent in favor and 42 percent against the decision.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE