Clinton Urges Lawmakers to Focus on “˜Revising’ instead of ‘Defunding’ Obamacare

Former President Bill Clinton’s major call to action was for Congress to fix the issues he identified in the law. Will they?

Former President Bill Clinton speaks about health care at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. Clinton's speech comes with the Affordable Healthcare Act in final countdown mode, just a few weeks before the scheduled Oct. 1 launch of online health insurance markets in the states.
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Sept. 4, 2013, 1:57 p.m.

In a speech that fell right smack in the middle of the na­tion’s de­bate on Syr­ia, former Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton urged Con­gress to re­vise a num­ber of is­sues he has with the Af­ford­able Care Act in­stead of fo­cus­ing on de­fund­ing it.

The former chief ex­ec­ut­ive—who Pres­id­ent Obama jok­ingly called “the Sec­ret­ary of Ex­plain­ing Stuff” last year—de­livered the Wed­nes­day morn­ing ad­dress from his pres­id­en­tial lib­rary in Little Rock, Ark. His speech came less than a month be­fore one of the biggest com­pon­ents of the law—the ex­change mar­kets—are set to open for en­roll­ment Oct. 1.

Clin­ton said he agreed to join the White House’s cheer­lead­ing ef­forts be­cause he was shocked by the lack of know­ledge and un­der­stand­ing of the new law. But his re­marks were not lim­ited to ad­dress­ing the con­cerns of crit­ics.

“The be­ne­fits of re­form can’t be fully real­ized, and prob­lems cer­tainly can’t be solved, un­less both the sup­port­ers and the op­pon­ents of the ori­gin­al le­gis­la­tion work to­geth­er to im­ple­ment it and ad­dress the is­sues that arise whenev­er you have a sys­tem this com­plic­ated, Clin­ton said.

He called on Con­gress to tackle prob­lem areas of the law that need solv­ing. Among them, he lis­ted a gap in small-busi­ness tax cred­its, which do not cov­er all em­ploy­ees or all firms. He said it should be ex­pan­ded.

An­oth­er is­sue is the gap in sub­sidies for de­pend­ents. Work­ers who re­ceive em­ploy­er cov­er­age are in­eligible for tax sub­sidies in the ex­change.  Some em­ploy­ers don’t cov­er fam­il­ies and those fam­il­ies’ in­ab­il­ity to re­ceive sub­sidies, which make the ex­change af­ford­able, is an “un­in­ten­ded con­sequence” of the law, Clin­ton said.

His con­cerns are real—but the chance that any­thing gets done about them is slim. Patrick Griffin, as­so­ci­ate dir­ect­or of Amer­ic­an Uni­versity’s Cen­ter for Con­gres­sion­al and Pres­id­en­tial Stud­ies, served as Clin­ton’s dir­ect­or of con­gres­sion­al af­fairs dur­ing his first term. He said the “De­fund Obama­care” move­ment poses a “great di­ver­sion” that will un­der­mine the ef­fort to im­prove the law.

“There are sub­stant­ive con­cerns that Clin­ton was speak­ing to that ought to be ad­dressed,” Griffin said. “Wheth­er they’ll get a fair ex­am­in­a­tion un­der the cur­rent cir­cum­stances is hard to ima­gine giv­en the cur­rent ef­fort fo­cus­ing on de­fund­ing it en­tirely.”

Some con­ser­vat­ives said they were un­moved by Clin­ton’s re­marks. Chris Jac­obs, seni­or policy ana­lyst at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion—a sup­port­er of the De­fund Obama­care ini­ti­at­ive—said the prob­lems Clin­ton high­lighted would re­quire ex­pens­ive solu­tions.

“There’s the philo­soph­ic­al con­cern that we want the law re­pealed al­to­geth­er,” Jac­obs said. “But the prac­tic­al con­cern is that he has no way to pay for these solu­tions. It will likely mean more tax in­creases.”

Which Jac­obs said brings them back to square one: the philo­soph­ic­al con­cern that the tax­pay­er shouldn’t be foot­ing the bill for big gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ives.

Griffin said he thinks the de­fund ef­forts are “just as un­real­ist­ic” as the chances of bring­ing re­form meas­ures to the floor.

“I think [Clin­ton] presen­ted an as­pir­a­tion­al goal,” he said, “but the de­bate has got a ways to go.”

Both parties could be at fault if the pro­posed re­forms don’t see day­light. Don Stew­art, a spokes­man for Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, said he doesn’t think re­vi­sions to the Af­ford­able Care Act are likely to be brought up in the Sen­ate.

“I haven’t heard Sen­at­or [Harry] Re­id say since the bill passed that he’d bring up any changes to the bill,” Stew­art said.

Re­id’s of­fice could not be reached for com­ment.

Wheth­er Clin­ton’s call to ac­tion sways this fall’s Con­gres­sion­al agenda re­mains to be seen when both houses re­turn from sum­mer re­cess Monday.

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