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Did Vitter Squander the Best Chance for His Obamacare Amendment?

(Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call)

Sen. David Vitter fired the latest salvo against health benefits for congressional staff Friday in a local New Orleans newspaper, but only after missing what may have been his biggest leverage to force a vote.

The Louisiana Republican said in a opinion piece that he would continue to do everything in his power to force the Senate to vote on legislation, known as the Vitter amendment, to end the employer-provided health benefits for members and congressional aides.

“The rules of the U.S. Senate offer any individual senator many tools and opportunities to demand a vote. I’ll use all of those tools and opportunities to demand a clear up-or-down vote on my bill,” Vitter said. “This issue isn’t going away.”

Of course, threat to force Senate votes works best when there’s time-sensitive business moving through the chamber that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., needs a unanimous consent agreement on in order to complete quickly. That was certainly the case this week, when he needed to move his agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to avert risking a default on the federal debt.

National Review reported that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., threatened to object to a deal to get the government back fully up-and-running and raise the debt limit without consideration of the Vitter amendment, but there’s been no such agreement locked-in. Any senator could have come to the floor and objected to the time agreement that set up a quick vote on the deal Wednesday evening, but none took that step — which would likely have generated widespread scorn for putting the government on the verge of default.

The continuing push for the Vitter amendment only increases uncertainty for Congressional staffers moving into the new exchanges. Earlier this week, Senate employees received a memo saying that in order to maintain the employer contribution, they must get health care through DC Health Link, the District of Columbia’s exchange, regardless of residency.

In the memo obtained by CQ Roll Call, the Disbursing Office told staffers to keep an eye on developments related to implementing this provision of Obamacare. Time is a factor, as staffers have been told they must buy an insurance plan through the exchange between Nov. 11 and Dec. 9 to keep their benefits.

When Vitter last made the move to object to Senate business, it came in connection with a much lower profile energy efficiency measure championed by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Oho. That bill was left hanging when the Senate turned to a continuing resolution to try and avoid the government shutdown.

Vitter gave a floor speech earlier in the week encouraging the House to include his language in its version of debt limit legislation — a bill that never materialized.

“Again, I urge the House to act on that important language. That would show leadership. That would align our personal interests with the folks we represent. That would honor what should be the first principle of American democracy: Washington lives under the same rules as the rest of America on Obamacare and on everything else,” Vitter said.

Vitter is attempting to enforce a provision of the health care law that’s often attributed to Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley that requires members and their staff to participate in the health insurance exchanges. Grassley himself says that the language omitting employer contributions is the result of a drafting error.

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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