WASHINGTON The Republican-led House voted on Wednesday to delay core provisions of President Barack Obama's health care law, emboldened by the administration's concession that requiring companies to provide coverage for their workers next year may be too complicated.
After a day of heated rhetoric, the House voted largely along party lines, 264-161, to delay by one year the so-called employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. It voted 251-174 to extend a similar grace period to virtually all Americans who will be required to obtain coverage beginning Jan. 1, the linchpin of the law.
The dual political-show votes marked the 38th time the GOP majority has tried to eliminate, defund or scale back the unpopular law since Republicans took control of the House in January 2011. The House legislation stands no chance in the Democratic-run Senate.
The goal of the health care law is to provide coverage to nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance and lower skyrocketing costs. But in the three years since Obama signed his signature law, the public remains highly skeptical and the administration's abrupt decision earlier this month to delay the employer provision only fueled more doubts.
Republican foes welcomed the deferment as a political gift, not only to assail Obama but to arrange votes that put House Democrats on record ahead of next year's congressional elections. In fact, on the employer mandate, 35 Democrats broke with party leaders and joined Republicans in backing the delay. Twenty-two Democrats supported a postponement of the health care requirement for individuals.
"This administration cannot make its own law work," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, during House debate.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the decision was "a clear signal that even the administration doesn't believe the country is ready to sustain the painful economic impact this law will have."
Eager to counter the Republican criticism, Obama plans to deliver remarks Thursday focusing on rebates that consumers are already receiving from insurance companies under the health care law.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will draw attention to the 8.5 million consumers who have received an average consumer rebate of about $100. Carney also highlighted reports that some states are already anticipating lower premiums under the Affordable Care Act.
"Competition and transparency in the marketplaces, plus the hard effort by those committed to making the law work, are leading to affordable, new and better choices for families," Carney said.
The House vote delaying the employer requirement codified the administration's decision, but the White House insisted it was unnecessary and issued a tough veto threat. Democrats dismissed the entire GOP effort as just another fruitless attack on a law that has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
"Well, here we go again. Another repeal vote, another political side show," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said it was "nothing more than a waste of time" as the health care issue has been settled in Congress, the courts and in last year's presidential election when Obama won a second term.
In a series of unconventional political arguments, Republicans faulted Obama, who taught courses in constitutional law, of selectively enforcing the law. They accused a Democratic president of siding with business while ignoring the needs of average Americans.
"Let's provide the same relief to American families that Obama's promised to big business," said Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind.
Republicans also read aloud the complaints of union leaders about the unintended consequences of the law on workers' hours, with companies scaling back work time to avoid providing health coverage. They gleefully cited labor's statement that it voted for Democrats and expected them to address the problem.
The unions International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and UNITE-HERE wrote to Democratic leaders last week that the law's requirements have created an incentive for employers to limit workers' hours.
The law created a new definition of full-time workers, those putting in 30 hours or more.
"Time is running out: Congress wrote this law; we voted for you. We have a problem; you need to fix it. The unintended consequences of the ACA (Affordable Care Act) are severe. Perverse incentives are already creating nightmare scenarios," the union leaders wrote.
House Democrats argued that the criticisms ignore the immediate advantages of the law, millions of young people who are able to remain on their parents' health care until age 26, preventives services and the millions of Americans who will have access to affordable care.
After each Republican spoke during House debate, Democrats described the specific benefits of the law in the GOP lawmaker's district.
Under the health law, companies with 50 or more workers must provide affordable coverage to their full-time employees or risk a series of escalating tax penalties if just one worker ends up getting government-subsidized insurance. Originally, that requirement was supposed to take effect Jan. 1. It will now be delayed to 2015.
The administration said businesses had raised concerns about the complexity of the requirements and pressed for more time for implementation. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 95 percent of employers with 50 or more workers already offer health benefits.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, senior administration officials defended the law and the delay.
Treasury Department health policy adviser Mark Iwry told the Ways and Means Committee that the administration's one-year delay of the requirement for larger employers to offer coverage was in keeping with the agency's longstanding legal authority to smooth the implementation of complicated new tax laws.
"On a number of prior occasions across administrations, this authority has been used to postpone the application of new legislation when immediate application would have subjected taxpayers to unreasonable administrative burdens or costs," Iwry said.
He cited a number of previous examples, from small business legislation to a tax on aviation fuel.
The inspector general's office that monitors the Internal Revenue Service warned of possible problems for consumers submitting applications for health insurance in October.
Testifying before the House Oversight committee, Alan Duncan of the Treasury's Inspector General office said the rush to be ready for open enrollment Oct. 1 may leave some technology not fully tested.
"The lack of adequate testing could result in significant delays and errors in accepting and processing ... applications for health insurance coverage," Duncan testified.
Administration officials said they are highly confident of a successful launch.