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October 25, 2014

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Heller continues to wage war on Obamacare despite having called a cease-fire

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Sen. Dean Heller gives a memorial tribute during the 48th Annual Memorial Day Service at the Palm Downtown Mortuary and Cemetery in Las Vegas, Monday, May 27, 2013.

After President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, a significant chunk of the Republican Party redoubled its efforts to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, his signature piece of legislation better known as Obamacare.

But the odds were long and the fight was old — and so some stalwart critics, like Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., told their party to count them out.

“It’s the law of the land,” Heller told the Sun during an interview in his office in mid-December 2012. “I always said that this presidential election was going to determine whether the Affordable Care Act was going to move forward or not.

“It’s not going to be repealed. It’s not going to be substantially changed,” Heller said. “President Obama got re-elected. Let’s move on.”

Yet as the country gets closer to the soft opening of the health care law’s exchanges — now two weeks away — Heller’s name keeps popping up in high-profile efforts to throw a monkey wrench into the mix.

This spring, Heller led an effort in the Senate to suspend funding for positions at the Internal Revenue Service dedicated to implementing the law.

Then this summer, in responding to news that the Obama administration had delayed the employer mandate, Heller joined with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., by demanding that the government stop spending any more money on Obamacare at all.

“Stalling one part of this law adds confusion to an already complicated web of regulations, taxes and mandates that Nevadans simply cannot afford,” he said. “Clearly, tax dollars should not be spent on this law.”

Most recently, Heller joined an effort by Sen. David Vitter this month to require members of the Obama administration, Congress, and their staffers to procure their health insurance from the soon-to-be-unveiled exchanges — without the benefit of subsidies.

“Those who wrote the law should be beholden to it,” Heller said Tuesday. “Those who put it in place should be subject to the same burdensome taxes, regulations and mandates that everyday Americans are stuck with.”

Democrats charge that all of these campaigns are thinly veiled attempts to undercut the health care law.

“In truth, this is only the latest Republican attempt to derail the successful implementation of Obamacare,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of Vitter’s proposal Tuesday.

He and other Democrats have long taken a united-it-stands, divided-it-falls approach to the health care law, with few exceptions. “Unless we implement this properly,“ Reid said on a Nevada radio program last May, “it’s going to be a train wreck.”

But Heller doesn’t see it that way.

“Part of what Heller was saying (in December) is the election happened, and that it’s time to move on to jobs and the economy,” Heller spokesman Chandler Smith said Tuesday. “The problem is, as Obamacare is being implemented, we’re finding out more and more the extent to which this legislation is hurting the economy.

“Yes, we want to move on to jobs and economy,” Smith said, “but Obamacare is part of the problem. We can’t move on without talking about Obamacare.”

Heller, despite his apparent retreat in late 2012, has never been a friend of the 2010 health care law. He voted against it in the House of Representatives. He campaigned against it on the road to winning his Senate seat. And this week, Heller was plain in his disdain for the law, saying on the Senate floor Tuesday that “the law never should have been passed to begin with.”

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, the health care law looked like a done deal. But new timelines, erosion of key support, and certain compliance loopholes have rendered it quite different than lawmakers envisioned.

In the first place, some of the regulations needed to implement the law have been delayed. Most notably, employers won’t be required to comply with the mandate to provide employees with qualified health insurance options for another year. But already the swell of employers moving toward complying with the law are identifying — or, some lawmakers argue, creating — problems.

The insurance mandates were seen as surefire ways to get more Americans onto employer-sponsored health care coverage. In the time since, several companies have downgraded their employees to part-time status, as a way of avoiding health care costs.

The political landscape has also changed. In 2010, unions were squarely on board with Obamacare, and spent considerable resources through the 2012 election season to campaign for Obama.

Today, officials from those same unions, such as the AFL-CIO, are charging that Obamacare is “highly disruptive” — and privately reserving the opinion that the health care law should be repealed, according to reports.

Democrats have met these developments with everything from concern to vitriol while Republicans have used them as "we told you so" fodder.

“Since the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, its provisions have been repeatedly delayed by the administration, demonstrating that the federal government knows how bad the law will be for businesses and middle-class families,” Heller said Tuesday.

The changes and revelations have given Heller cover to pivot from his previous conviction that the fight over Obamacare had ended.

Heller took advantage of a brewing IRS scandal last spring to make his first move toward breaking the ceasefire on Obamacare, arguing the agency couldn’t be trusted to implement the tax provisions in the health care law while it was being accused of launching politically motivated audits on Obama’s detractors.

Since then, Heller’s campaign to complicate the fiscal viability of certain provisions of the health care law has fallen in line with the newly favored conservative Republican strategy on Obamacare that says defunding the law is the “next best thing” to full repeal.

“Short of its full repeal, Congress’ best option is to defund the entire law to prevent its implementation,” wrote Chris Jacobs, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that — ironically — conceived the idea of a universal health care mandate but has since become one of Obamacare’s biggest critics. “Defunding amendments could also be added to the annual appropriations bills moving their way through Congress.”

Such an effort is underway in the House of Representatives. It is highly likely that the Republican-led House will include a provision to defund the ACA entirely in its continuing budget resolution. Because that measure cannot pass the Democratic-controlled Senate — and because Congress has only until midnight Sept. 30 to approve a budget resolution — the standoff has fueled talk that the government might be headed for a shutdown.

Heller has his limits: He refused to sign onto a manifesto from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, this summer urging complete and outright defunding of the entire health care law, and he is not up for picking a fight over Obamacare when a government shutdown is at stake.

But Heller may not get to pick this battle. Should the House of Representatives send the Senate a budget bill based on defunding Obamacare, he may be dragged back into the high-stakes game of health care law battles, against his better judgment.

When asked Friday night on the Vegas PBS program Nevada Week in Review whether he would vote for a budget bill that included funding for Obamacare, he said: “Probably not. To be fair with you, probably not.”

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