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Published: Monday, 1/6/2014

GOP senator sues over Obamacare coverage for members of Congress

TRIBUNE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON — Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson filed suit Monday to challenge what he called the Obama administration’s abuse of executive authority in issuing rules over how members of Congress and their staff receive coverage under the president’s signature health law.

The Republican senator’s lawsuit, filed in Wisconsin district court, seeks to overturn a rule adopted by the administration’s Office of Personnel Management to continue contributing a government subsidy to help pay the monthly health care premiums of members of Congress and their staff members after they enroll in plans offered through the District of Columbia’s new exchange.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, members of Congress and their staff members were no longer allowed to receive health care through the federal benefits system, a provision intended to shift them onto the exchanges set up for private individuals who do not receive employer-provided plans.

But the law was ambiguous about whether the lawmakers and staff would continue to receive the generous government contribution that previously subsidized their coverage. The Obama administration ruled that they would.

Johnson said at a news conference at the Capitol on Monday that the administration’s rule amounts to “special treatment” for lawmakers and their staffs. He said the government subsidy gives them a tax benefit not available to ordinary Americans who do not have employer-based coverage.

But the larger issue, Johnson said, was the administration’s use of executive authority to waive or delay parts of the law. His office provided a list of 13 specific changes to the law made by executive action, and cited an outside analysis of at least 27 overall.

“If members of Congress, if this administration don’t like the law of the land, they should come to Congress to change the law of the land,” Johnson said. “They should not change it by presidential decree or presidential fiat.”

Johnson was elected to the Senate as part of the 2010 ``tea party’’ wave that sprung out of opposition to the health care law enacted that year. He has co-sponsored a legislative effort to overturn the administration rule, led by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., which would also force executive branch officials and staff members to enroll in coverage through the state and federal exchanges. But Democrats who control the Senate have repeatedly blocked Vitter’s attempts to call a vote on the amendment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized Johnson’s suit, citing in remarks on the Senate floor a comment by another Wisconsin Republican, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who called it a “stunt.” Johnson has said he was “puzzled” by Sensenbrenner’s comment.

“This is, I think, a very important constitutional question,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a very important issue that deserves a full airing, its day in court.”

Johnson has retained as counsel in the suit Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general during George W. Bush’s administration, who argued the Obamacare cases before the Supreme Court.

Clement said a favorable ruling for Johnson, if upheld by higher courts, would have “collateral effects” affecting other executive actions regarding the law, but would not necessarily unravel it.

“What it would really do is create a certain parity between the way that members of Congress are dealing with this law and their constituents,” he said.

Clement added that it would, though, establish precedent for challenging other executive actions.



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