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Senate Democrats Likely to Oppose Push to Block Health Insurance Mandate

Desire to keep contentious amendments off spending bills might prevail

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairs the Appropriations subcommittee where any amendment on the D.C. health insurance mandate might come up first in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairs the Appropriations subcommittee where any amendment on the D.C. health insurance mandate might come up first in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A Republican amendment to a House-passed spending package that would ban the District of Columbia from implementing an individual health insurance coverage requirement is unlikely to gain steam as the Senate prepares to take up a similar measure.

It’s not clear yet if any Senate Republicans will introduce a similar amendment when the Financial Services and Interior-Environment package reaches the Senate floor, but it would likely face fierce minority opposition in the chamber, where Democrats are defending the 2010 health care law at every opportunity.

The amendment is the type that senators are trying to avoid this year while trying to move bipartisan fiscal 2019 appropriations bills across the floor, which requires 60 votes in the narrowly divided chamber.

“The chairman and vice chairman of Appropriations have done an excellent job of keeping poison pill policy riders out of our appropriations bills,” Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, the top Democrat crafting the Senate’s financial services and general government spending bill, said when asked about the amendment. “I would expect that would continue.”

Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing financial services and general government, said Thursday that he wouldn’t want to speculate on what amendments to the bill would be proposed.

The House voted 226-189 late Wednesday to adopt the amendment from Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Mark Walker of North Carolina and Gary Palmer of Alabama to the Interior-Environment and Financial Services fiscal 2019 spending package, which the House passed Thursday by a 217-199 vote. Another amendment from Meadows that would prohibit federal dollars from funding the operation of the health care law’s multistate health plan was adopted late Wednesday by a 223-192 vote.

Republicans last year effectively repealed the requirement for most Americans to have health insurance coverage under the 2010 law by reducing to zero the penalty for failing to have coverage as part of their tax overhaul. Since then, the New Jersey Legislature passed a measure to implement a state-level mandate for 2019 and Vermont is poised to implement one in 2020.

The D.C. City Council approved a budget earlier this year that would require residents to have health insurance coverage or pay a penalty and would allow the government to place liens on or seize property from any individual unwilling or unable to pay that penalty, a step that House Republicans pointed to as going further in enforcement than the health care law had.

Speaking on the House floor Wednesday, Palmer also noted that all health plans sold on the D.C. exchange cover abortions.

“The mandate forces individuals who don’t wish to purchase this coverage to choose between violating their conscience and face a tax penalty or even worse, have their property seized,” he said.

D.C. Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said the amendment could harm the area’s individual health insurance market. Insurers seeking to offer plans on the exchange in Washington are seeking an average increase of 14.9 percent in premiums for 2019, according to initial rate filings from June.

“Republicans were not satisfied with sabotaging the Affordable Care Act by, among other things, reducing the penalty for failure to comply with the individual responsibility requirement to zero dollars in the recently enacted GOP tax scam,” she said on the floor, adding that GOP members would “deny the 700,000 federal taxpaying Americans who live in the District of Columbia access to quality, affordable health insurance coverage.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement that the House spending bill was another example demonstrating what she sees as the unfairness of the District’s lack of statehood.

“This legislation includes seven anti-D.C. riders, including two new riders that jeopardize health insurance for our residents and are the latest attack on states’ rights and the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “In short, these riders do nothing to improve the lives of Americans living in Washington, D.C., but, instead, focus on undermining women’s health and the District’s nondiscrimination protections.”

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