It sounds like the most reasonable thing in the world—like life insurance, or rustproofing. Republicans say all it will take to avoid the calamity of a government shutdown is for an itty-bitty delay of President Obama's health care law. What's the big deal? He's already pushed off the mandate for employers to provide coverage by a year, and 22 House Democrats even voted for a similar stay of the individual mandate.
"The president knows this law's not ready; that's why he delayed it for big business," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, at a press conference last week. "Everyone knows this thing is not ready." Certainly, Democrats could be persuaded that the rollout could use a little more time to iron out the kinks—maybe give the public more opportunity to rally around the law. Win-win, right?
"Absolutely, positively not," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on CNN later when asked whether a delay would be negotiable. Democrats aren't stupid. They know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie.
Any delay to Obamacare—whether it's pushing back the individual mandate or stripping funding for a year—would only open the door to devastating consequences for the law. Once Obama shows he is willing to negotiate on his signature piece of legislation—and, by implication, signaling that the law may have deep, fundamental problems—there will be no end of trying to tear it down, with opponents perhaps garnering another 41 House votes to defund it in the process.
"It's not worth discussing, because it's not going to happen," Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told National Journal. "We're more than happy to work with Republicans to fix some of the glitches. But they're not interested in making adjustments; they're simply trying to wipe it out completely."
This is no secret. For Republicans to even imply that a delay would be good for the White House ("I actually believe the president wants to delay Obamacare, because it's such a mess," said conservative Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "It's just not working for them.") is specious. The GOP wants to kill this law, and tranquilizing it is just an attempt to put it down in hopes that it never wakes up. Secure a postponement to next year, and maybe if the Senate flips, the dynamic changes. Delay it long enough, and eventually a Republican president might be able to help finish it off for good.
Instead, the opening that Republicans see is largely rhetorical. They say the Democratic message isn't matching up with the cold, hard reality of implementation. "The delays the administration has been forced to implement in the health care law have given us a golden opportunity to talk about fairness: 'If big business gets relief from the president's health care law, families and small businesses should, too,' " Speaker John Boehner has been fond of saying.
Naturally, it's not that simple and, past the boilerplate, few on either side argue with that. The individual mandate and the employer mandate may sound like equal components of the Affordable Care Act, but the requirement that all consumers purchase insurance has a much more far-reaching effect. "Only one [mandate] has a substantial effect on behavioral decisions," said Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "Only one has broad implications for reform and for the chances of achieving the objective of the law."
Delaying the employer mandate, Blumberg argues, has merely cost the government some revenue from penalties. Moreover, the reach of that mandate is minimal: Most large companies offer health care coverage, and many small ones are exempt from doing so. Delaying the individual mandate, conversely, would profoundly destabilize the law.
Obamacare is often thought of as a three-legged stool. To balance the cost of market reforms such as allowing those with preexisting conditions to obtain insurance coverage (the first leg), the individual mandate (the second leg) forces healthier people to pay into the system. To help low-income consumers pay for the coverage, the government kicks in subsidies (the third leg). Lose any of the three legs and you end up with a useless piece of furniture.
There's another reason it makes no sense for Democrats to delay the law: It's not growing any more popular with the passage of time. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 42 percent of respondents said they approved of the law—a number that has been consistent since enactment. The only way to significantly change the public's view is for the law to work. Another delay means another year of promising benefits that remain out of reach.
Again, Republicans know this, which is why they're ratcheting up the pressure on Democratic moderates who have to face the voters next year, such as Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. Better that someone like Begich has to stand for reelection with the law's vir- tues still uncertain than with it producing tangible results.
Begich isn't taking the bait. "This economy needs to keep moving forward. To jeopardize it over a potential shutdown would be a huge mistake," he told NJ.
Actually, the Republicans agree completely. It's in the definition of jeopardy that the two sides part ways. "If you want to write a story about how we want to shut down the government, that's your fault," Labrador told a reporter last week. "If Harry Reid and the president want to shut down the government—because what we are asking for is a simple delay of Obamacare—then I hope you write your story that way."