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Health Insurance Mandate Votes Are Designed to Put Democrats on Defense

House Republican leaders, who have struggled at times to keep their conference together, have set floor votes on health care designed to show that the Democratic Caucus is fractured, too.

On the heels of the Obama administration’s recent announcement that it would delay enforcement of the employer health insurance mandate, Republicans have scheduled separate votes on a pair of bills, one codifying that announcement and one delaying implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, too.

The decision to delay, rather than repeal, is significant: Moderate Democrats and 2014 “frontliners” who oppose parts of the health care law but not the law itself will be forced to decide whether they want to turn away from their leadership and the White House to vote with Republicans in favor of the delays.

“They are playing this very well,” a chief of staff to a moderate Democrat said of the GOP.

Republicans acknowledge the attempt to expose Democrats on the issue.

“Having the votes in this fashion will highlight the hypocrisy of any Democrat who votes for delaying the employer mandate but against delaying the individual mandate,” a senior Republican leadership aide said in a statement. “The administration’s position is intellectually and morally indefensible — and this week, we’ll see how many Congressional Democrats agree.”

“[It’s] perfectly appropriate to point out the hypocrisy of the Obama administration in delaying the employer mandate but not the individual mandate,” said Heritage Action for America Communications Director Dan Holler, who like others suspects that Democrats will break from their party to back the employer mandate delay but vote against efforts to stall the individual mandate.

The White House, meanwhile, contends that any effort to stop the individual mandate is simply another version of repeal, with Press Secretary Jay Carney noting Monday that the individual mandate is what enables people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage.

But for some Democrats, mainly those who remain in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, it won’t be that tough of a decision: Democratic leaders have given up on strong-arming many of those members to vote with them, and the members have, in turn, stopped caring about alienating their top brass.

For others, it represents a dilemma that puts them in between the two parties and could end up causing them trouble no matter how they vote.

Freshman Democrats who have spoken out against some provisions of Obamacare are also grappling with their options, given that this is really only their second opportunity to vote on the health law. They had the choice of whether to vote on a full repeal earlier this year, the chamber’s 37th vote to dismantle the law since Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Not many of them did.

Members of the New Democrat Coalition, a more progressive faction than the Blue Dogs who still err toward a more fiscally conservative, pro-business position, have to decide as well how they want to vote on the employer mandate.

“It’s a tough vote for a lot of our members and conversations have already started on that,” coalition spokesman Phil LaRue said. “It will definitely be a tough one for some folks.”

Democratic leadership aides said Monday that no decisions have been made yet on whether to whip against either of the two bills — those conversations will occur in earnest in meetings that take place before the first vote series of the workweek, in this case Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

As for whether leaders might decide to advise their members to vote against the party line if they found it politically advantageous, spokespeople for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland indicated that those strategic decisions are made together.

And an aide familiar with strategy within the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added that Chairman Steve Israel of New York will more often than not advise frontliners to “always listen to your district.”

Some aides suggest, however, that the GOP strategy could backfire. A swath of Republican lawmakers on the far right of the conference, they contend, could end up voting against the measures because they would prefer votes on full repeal.

Though conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, which take credit for bringing down the first iteration of the farm bill last month, have said they won’t issue key votes against the bills, both have made their positions clear: They want votes to dismantle Obamacare, not simply halt its progress.

“Obviously [Republicans] have Heritage and Club foiling their plans, basically saying they don’t have a position on these bills but they are not supportive because they’re not full repeal,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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