New Obamacare delay could be issue in 2014, 2016 elections for Democrats

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended his administration’s latest decision to delay an aspect of the Affordable Care Act, saying the move was about “smoothing out” the health care law’s rocky implementation.

Obama acknowledged that “challenges” exist in implementing the massive Affordable Care Act. During a joint news conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, Obama said his administration was responding to the central question: “How do we make it work for the American people and for their employees in an optimal way?”

Republicans, however, didn’t waste any time after the Treasury Department announced Monday that small businesses with 50 to 99 employees have until 2016 to comply with the mandate they provide health insurance for employees or face a fine. It’s the second one-year delay for small businesses. In addition, employees with more than 99 employees have to cover 70% of employees in 2015, easing the previous mandate of 95%.

The phasing in of the employer mandate is designed to make “the compliance process simpler and easier to navigate,” said Mark J. Mazur, assistant secretary for tax policy.

“Once again, the President is giving a break to corporations, while individuals and families are still stuck under the mandates of his health care law. And, once again, the President is rewriting law on a whim,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chair, said the delay is “yet another sign that the law simply isn’t working.”

This week’s delay is just one of several in the health care law’s implementation. After the controversy over Obama’s pledge that if people liked their health insurance they could keep it, the administration announced late last year that noncompliant plans could continue for an additional year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called the timing of the new delay suspicious.

“The administration has stressed this week that Congress can trust the President to enforce the law, and then once again, he selectively delays parts of Obamacare in order to put off more negative consequences until after Election Day,” said Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican.

The GOP’s forceful attacks on the Affordable Care Act will be a central theme in this year’s midterm elections.

Midterm contests are traditionally base elections, and it’s safe to say the conservative base of the Republican Party hates Obamacare. Three-quarters of Republicans questioned in an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last month said they opposed the health care law, with 21% supportive of the measure. Support edged down to 19% among conservative Republicans.

Attacks on the health care law play well with House conservatives who are more worried about a primary challenge from the right than any Democrat in the general election. And they play well in red and purple states, where the GOP is eyeing vulnerable Democratic Senate seats this November.

Politics aside, Henry Aaron, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the latest delay “prudent.”

“It’s clear there have been major difficulties, and not all of them have yet been solved,” Aaron said, referring to previous implementation delays and the botched rollout of the exchanges in October.

This postponement allows the administration to “move ahead in a way that gives administrators a chance to deal with problems,” he said.

But prudence comes with political risks.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said the latest move will “keep the law — and the controversy surrounding it — front and center as November approaches.”

“Every hiccup in the enactment in ACA gives Republicans another opportunity to criticize the law and the Obama administration,” he said.

The timing might not be politically practical for Democrats for another reason. The small business requirement is set to go into effect at the beginning of 2016, just as presidential primaries and caucuses get under way, potentially drawing negative attention to Democratic candidates for the White House.

The irony is that the more parts of the Affordable Care Act are delayed, the closer the law is to not being fully enacted — Republicans’ objective.

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