As Republicans in Congress try to stop Obamacare via government shutdown, one GOP idea that's risen to the surface is removing federal contributions for Capitol Hill employees' health insurance. But according to Politico's John Bresnahan, Speaker John Boehner privately thinks the subsidies should remain — and has vigorously fought to keep them — even though he's publicly pushing to get rid of them.
Sen. David Vitter's amendment to end Obamacare subsides for Hill staff has enraged Democrats, and the House GOP has continued to push for it even after shutdown. Lawmakers and their staff are in the unique position of having to sign up, as part of the law, for the Obamacare exchanges, even though they already had health insurance. Some members of the GOP, like Vitter, think the government (as an employer) shouldn't contribute to that insurance.
Politico reports that Boehner has been secretly collaborating with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to save the subsidies. The two even tried to get President Obama in on the deal, requesting a meeting that would officially be about a different subject. In public, however, Boehner maintains that he wants to repeal Obamacare and does not admit to crossing party lines to protect the federal contributions.
In planning a meeting with Obama (that did not end up happening), Boehner's chief of staff Mike Sommers sent an email to David Krone, Reid's top aide, stating: “We can’t let it get out there that this is for [Boehner] and [Reid] to ask the President to carve us out of the requirement of Obamacare." But, as Politico reports,
During a five-month period stretching from February to July, Boehner and his aides sought along with Reid’s office to solve what had become a big headache for both of them. They drafted and reviewed a possible legislative fix, as well as continued to push for an administrative one from the Office of Personnel Management.
This revelation illustrates a big fracture in the Republican Party. Vitter has been pushing his amendment for weeks. Sen. Ted Cruz thinks the amendment should be expanded to include all federal employees, like D.C. teachers. But privately, it's clear that Boehner disagrees.
However, Politico reports "Boehner’s aides vehemently deny that the speaker’s private efforts contradict his public statements on the issue. They insist Democrats were the ones who enacted Obamacare and it is up to them to address the problem."
Reid, for his part, is happy to admit that he and Boehner have worked together on saving the subsidies. Adam Jentleson, Reid’s communications director, told Politico, "Senator Reid appreciates Speaker Boehner’s cooperation and tireless efforts to work through this difficult issue."
Getting rid of the subsidies would mean essentially handing a big pay cut to (arguably already under-paid) Hill staffers. Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a press conference yesterday that Vitter could have elected to do this on his own, telling his staff that he'd decided to give them a pay cut.
Meanwhile, Vitter claims that getting rid of the subsidies wouldn't really hurt employees. His press secretary Luke Bolar pointed out this part of the amendment: "In most of these cases [lawmakers and Hill staff] earn well above the maximum income ($43,000 individual/$92,000 family) and would otherwise be ineligible for subsidies or tax credits as defined in the statute."
But there are a lot of cases where Hill staff members do not earn "well above the maximum income." The average congressional staff assistant makes $29,000 per year. One GOP staffer told Mother Jones that "Congress literally threw staff under the bus on this…You're hurting staff assistants who are sorting your mail." Rochelle Dornatt, chief of staff to California Rep. Sam Farr, told Roll Call that she's considering ending her 32-year Hill career. "There’s a lot of chatter among chiefs of staff, Dornatt said, "who are ready to leave if this doesn’t turn out right." But Bolar insists the Vitter amendment still allows subsidies for those under the $43,000 income level.
Whatever happens with the Vitter amendment, lowly Hill staffers now have an unexpected, private ally: Boehner.