WASHINGTON -- House Republicans renewed their election-year assault on President Barack Obama’s health care law Thursday, their opposition undimmed just days after Obama celebrated news that more than 7 million Americans had signed up for coverage under the law.
The GOP-led chamber voted 248-179 to change the law’s definition of full-time work from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week. The result would be that fewer workers would get employer-sponsored health coverage and hundreds of thousands more people would be uninsured, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Republicans, backed by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, said the change would restore the traditional definition of full-time work while providing needed relief to businesses that are struggling with increased costs from the health care law. Businesses say they are being forced to cut worker hours, limit full-time jobs and drop health coverage because of the law, which requires businesses with 50 or more full-time workers to provide health coverage or pay penalties.
It was the House GOP’s 52nd vote to change, repeal or otherwise uproot Obama’s health law, and the measure faced certain death in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Eighteen Democrats joined with all Republicans in approving the bill, named the Save American Workers Act of 2013.
In rancorous debate on the House floor, Democrats accused Republicans of being obsessed with attacking the health law, while Republicans ridiculed Democrats for trying to change what they called a commonly understood definition of full-time work.
"We all know 30 hours isn’t full time but that’s what Obamacare says," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark. "Even in France a full-time job is 35 hours a week."
Democrats said the law’s 30-hour definition for a full-time workweek was meant to make it harder for employers to avoid covering full-time workers by slightly reducing their hours. Changing the definition to 40 hours would make the requirement virtually meaningless because employers could simply skirt it by knocking full-time workers down to 39-and-a-half hours a week, they said.
"That’s a great deal for the CEO of McDonalds," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. "But it’s a terrible deal for American workers."
The debate came as Republicans press their attacks on the Affordable Care Act as a potent political issue. All sides are looking ahead to November midterm balloting when control of both chambers of Congress is at stake, and Republicans are aiming to retake the Senate. Polls have shown the health law is unpopular, and the GOP’s zeal for the issue appeared undiminished by Tuesday’s announcement that 7.1 million people have signed up for coverage. That was significantly better than forecast and gave Obama something to boast about after a disastrous rollout.
Still, as they have in the past, some vulnerable Democrats split with their party to vote with the GOP on Thursday, including House members from Arizona, Georgia, Illinois and Utah.
The so-called employer mandate portion of the 4-year-old law has proven a particular headache for supporters, provoking such outcries from business groups that the administration already has delayed it twice. The requirement originally was supposed to take effect in 2014, but the latest delay gave companies with 50 to 99 employees until 2016 to comply, while bigger companies have until next year.
The law requires companies with 50 or more employees working 30 or more hours a week to offer them suitable coverage or pay fines. Small businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempt. And more than 90 percent of the larger firms already offer health care.
But the mandate still represents a major new government requirement on businesses, and complaints have poured forth from businesses large and small, giving plenty of ammunition to Republicans
The GOP got more grist in February from a Congressional Budget Office report saying that several million American workers would cut back their hours on the job or leave the workforce because of the health overhaul, in large part to keep their income low to stay eligible for federal health care subsidies or Medicaid.
Republicans said the bill advanced Thursday would repair that problem, but Democrats pointed out that it would mean 1 million fewer people with employer-based coverage, add to the rolls of the uninsured and increase budget deficits, according to Congress’ nonpartisan budget scorekeepers.