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Democrats look to defend Obamacare with disaster aid amendment

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is looking to put Obamacare and Democrats' defense of it front and center. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is looking to put Obamacare and Democrats' defense of it front and center. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:08 p.m. | Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Wednesday said Democrats would propose an amendment to a $13.45 billion disaster aid package that would block the Justice Department from carrying out President Donald Trump’s push for a court ruling invalidating the 2010 health care law.

The move is another threat to consensus on a supplemental spending bill that leaders hoped could be negotiated in a bipartisan manner, but talks have until now been weighed down by disagreement over the package’s size and scope. Senate Democrats’ strategy introduces a new hurdle and is part of a broader push by Democrats to steer public attention toward health care.

Democrats have also criticized items the Republican-drafted bill leaves out, such as additional funds for Puerto Rico and other territories affected by 2017 hurricanes. It’s unclear, however, if lawmakers will keep up their disagreements on the package or if Democrats will lean in favor of letting the disaster aid bill through after a series of amendment votes.

House Democrats, who pushed a broader $14.2 billion version through their chamber in January, have already pledged to push for additional funds in a conference committee to work out differences with the Senate. The Senate is considering its GOP-drafted disaster aid measure as a substitute amendment to the House-passed bill.

Also watch: What if we switch to a single-payer health care system?

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The Justice Department late Monday filed a brief supporting a lower court ruling in the case of Texas v. Azar that said the entire health care law should be invalidated after the effective end of the requirement that most people have coverage. That broadened the administration’s earlier position that only the parts of the law that ensure people with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied or charged more for insurance should fall without the so-called “individual mandate.”

District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled last year that the entire law should be eliminated after the 2017 tax law ended the penalty for not having insurance coverage. A group of Democratic state attorneys general led by California’s Xavier Becerra appealed the decision. The House is also a party to the law’s defense.

Schumer called the Trump administration decision “a moral and institutional outrage” and said his amendment to the disaster bill “will very simply prohibit the Department of Justice from using any funding to litigate the downfall of [the health care law] in circuit court.”

The minority leader also took aim at Republicans and the president for reported comments during Tuesday’s Senate GOP policy lunch on limiting aid to Puerto Rico .

Schumer said the Republicans and Trump were “refusing” to accept “commonsense proposals” on aid for Puerto Rico as well as the Northern Mariana Islands, which the New York Democrat said were “the same proposals that passed the House.”

“These are people who are hurting. What the president is doing with Puerto Rico is disgraceful — disgraceful, but typical of his view to divide, to pick winners and losers,” Schumer said.

When he introduced the new disaster aid package Tuesday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby cited input from Democrats on its contents and stressed that it would provide additional relief for Midwest states suffering from flooding. The Alabama Republican said he hoped Democrats won’t “stand in the way just because it does not include every single provision they wanted.”

Nebraska GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said that flooding in his home state means additional Army Corps of Engineers funds and agricultural relief will be needed, in addition to military base repairs. Fortenberry’s district contains Offutt Air Force Base.

“The Corps of Engineers says the levee system looks like Swiss cheese — these were 500-year flood events on three rivers that converged south of Omaha,” Fortenberry said.

Senate Majority Mitch McConnell said Tuesday there would be an opportunity for a subsequent disaster aid bill to take care of any needs unaddressed in the current round.

Not waiting around

Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy didn’t want to wait around for conference negotiations. The Vermont Democrat submitted an amendment Wednesday that he called a “compromise” proposal that he offered three weeks ago to the White House and Senate Republicans, which wasn’t included in Shelby’s bill.

Leahy’s amendment would add the following items:

  • Provide $431 million in additional Community Development Block Grant funds, which Leahy’s staff said would help cover Federal Emergency Management Agency cost-share requirements in places like Puerto Rico where local funds are scarce.
  • Mandate the Department of Housing and Urban Development release CDBG funds from the last disaster bill within 90 days, which Leahy said have been unnecessarily held up by the administration.
  • An additional $250 million for EPA state revolving funds to help Puerto Rico and other states rebuild damaged water systems.
  • Medicaid funding for the Northern Mariana Islands, and a cost-share waiver for the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. Other Democrats are throwing their ideas into the ring as well, including several presidential contenders. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced an amendment to end nutrition aid shortfalls in island territories once and for all by allowing Puerto Rico, the Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands into the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Currently food assistance in those three areas is provided through block grants, unlike the rest of the country.

The amendment was co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Harris had her own proposal as well, to direct $150 million in repair funds be allocated “to meet unmet needs for infrastructure grantees” hit by 2017 disasters.

Blumenthal also filed his own amendment that would increase to 100 percent the federal cost share for recent disaster recovery in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, as well as address certain rebuilding specifications, in part to give more leeway in repairs where pre-disaster conditions were below industry standards.