WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders on Tuesday seized on the Obama administration's one-year delay of a requirement that employers offer health insurance or face penalties, demanding the same postponement for the mandate on individual insurance purchases and promising a series of showdowns aimed at dividing Democrats from the White House.
After more than two years of voting repeatedly and unsuccessfully to repeal the health care law, Republicans believe that they are getting traction thanks to what they see as the Obama administration's self-inflicted wound over the employer mandate.
House GOP leaders began devising strategies that would most likely start this month with multiple votes, the first to codify the one-year delay on the employer mandate, then another to demand a delay on the individual mandate. They calculate that Democrats would first vote to back the administration's decision, and would then have a hard time opposing the second measure.
Some Republicans raised the possibility that a provision to repeal the individual mandate could be attached this fall to must-pass legislation raising the government's statutory borrowing limit.
"Is it fair for the president of the United States to give American businesses an exemption from his health care law's mandates, without giving the same exemption to the rest of America? Hell no, it's not fair," House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told a House Republicans closed-door gathering Tuesday, according to those present.
Some Democrats were also dismayed by the White House's actions. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and an author of the health law, questioned whether Mr. Obama had the authority to unilaterally delay the employer mandate. "This was the law. How can they change the law?" he asked.
For its part, the White House continued to look flat-footed on the issue. After an almost-surreptitious evening announcement of the delay last week, posted on the Treasury Department's website, the White House is declining to send a representative to a House hearing on the decision scheduled for today.
In the employer mandate postponement, Republicans see an opportunity to sound a populist alarm against a health care law that many Americans remain uncertain about.
"I never thought I'd see the day when the White House, this president, came down on the side of big business, but left the American people out in the cold as far as this health care mandate is concerned," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin, ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said such criticism was absurd. The GOP position on many issues is to "hug big business while leaving the American people out in the cold," he said.
But on this issue, Republicans have new policy arguments to add to the political attacks that have preceded nearly 40 votes to repeal all or part of the health care law. The White House announced July 2 that it would delay, until 2015, a requirement that larger employers offer coverage to employees. The administration said Friday that it would delay a requirement for federal and state insurance exchanges to verify whether people seeking subsidies qualify for them.
The subsidies, expected to average more than $5,000 a year for each person who qualifies, are meant to help low- and middle-income people pay for insurance. But the subsidies are not supposed to be available to people who have access to affordable coverage from employers.
In 2014, employers will not be required to report what coverage, if any, they provide to employees. In the absence of such information from employers and other sources, the government said, exchanges can generally rely on what applicants say.
That, too, became a rallying cry for Republicans. "The president's decision to use the honor system to hand out subsidies, I think, exposes taxpayers to massive fraud and abuse," Mr. Boehner said.
Even without the employer mandate, White House officials said, subsidies would not be handed out blindly to individuals. But Mr. Levin conceded that "there will be some reliance on the honesty of people," with audits, random checks or other safeguards to verify what people report.
Republicans insisted that Democratic unity on the health care law would begin to crack. Mr. Boehner told House Republicans that the law was a "rickety old stool," standing on the individual mandate, the employer mandate and a few other provisions. But at least for now, Democrats did not show signs of abandoning the individual mandate. "If you take away the individual mandate, that would dismantle a core concept of universal coverage," said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott, senior Democrat on the Ways and Means subcommittee on health.