GOP's Obamacare repeal effort hits major snag: Even their special math doesn't make the numbers work

Republicans try and try, but still's can't prove Obamacare is a budget-buster

Published June 23, 2015 4:51PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

What the dickens is wrong with these congressional Republicans? Do they not read their Salon Dot Com analysis of parliamentary rules?

November 11: "There are other problems with using the reconciliation process, for either a full Obamacare repeal or a repeal of the medical device or individual mandate, beyond the existence of the presidential veto. The so-called Byrd Rule does not allow the reconciliation process to be used for anything that adds to the deficit. The Affordable Care Act, by the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring, reduces the budget deficit by billions of dollars over the 10-year horizon."

January 16: "It’s a convoluted process, but in short, budget reconciliation allows a Senate majority to bypass the filibuster on a piece of legislation that meets certain budgetary requirements — that it doesn’t increase the deficit, for example, at least if the legislative changes are to be permanent."

March 18: "Legislation passed through budget reconciliation has to reduce the deficit if it’s to be permanent... Republicans don’t like to admit it, but repealing Obamacare would increase the deficit, so some other deficit-reduction reduction measures would have to be thrown into the package to get it past the watchful gaze of the Senate parliamentarian."

Separate and apart for their post-King v. Burwell contingency plans, congressional Republican leaders, egged on by conservatives, passed in their budget resolution reconciliation instructions for repealing the Affordable Care Act. This would allow them to move an ACA repeal bill through the Senate by a simple majority, without the threat of a filibuster. Though it would be instantly vetoed, the bill is intended as a political tactic (shocker!) heading into 2016. Congressional Republicans would show that they can get a full ACA repeal to the president's desk; just send a Republican to the White House and the dreaded Obamacare would be no more.

So the Republicans wrote up an Obamacare repeal bill and sent it over to CBO and its new director, Keith Hall. You'll recall that when Republicans took over the Senate, one of their first moves was to oust CBO director Doug Elmendorf, whom conservatives like Grover Norquist considered a filthy Keynesian far-left radical. Hall, a former economist for the George W. Bush administration, was installed to show Americans the truth about the true costs of Obamacare. He would use so-called "dynamic" scoring methods to show that, once the macroeconomic effects of an Obamacare repeal -- annualized GDP growth of fifty million percent! -- was factored into the score, the Affordable Care Act would be shown to be a the budget-buster that conservatives have always known it in their hearts to be.

Alas, we learned last Friday that even the magic wand of dynamic scoring could not transform a straight ACA repeal bill into a deficit reducer.

The Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion today that sacking Obamacare would swell the budget deficit by as much as $353 billion wasn’t at all what Republicans were expecting.

Using so-called dynamic scoring, which attempts to account for the economic effects of policy changes, a repeal would still hit the deficit, although by less — about $137 billion, CBO said.

Junking President Barack Obama’s signature health care plan would generate savings by ending insurance subsidies to millions of Americans, CBO said. But those savings would be more than offset by reversing the law’s cuts to Medicare as well as its various tax increases, including a new levy on high-cost insurance plans, the agency said.

It also found that a repeal would boost economic growth by an average 0.7 percent over the next decade, while increasing the ranks of the uninsured next year by 19 million.

Hall's scoring even showed more savings from the Affordable Care Act than Elmendorf's did.

Now, as Politico reports, Republicans in Congress are all sorts of confused about how they're going to move this through reconciliation.

That means Republicans will either have to forgo part of the Obamacare repeal they’ve promised for years — threatening to peel away the conservative support needed to pass their Plan B; or they’ll have to expand their package to include budget cuts to things like education, in order to pay for a fuller repeal. The latter could meet opposition from moderates or vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2016.

“They could still repeal major elements of the ACA and offset with other provisions to meet the net figure, but for the love of me I don’t know what those offsets would be unless it were tax increases, which obviously would not be considered,” said Bill Hoagland, longtime GOP budget expert who has advised Republicans on how the process works.

Any reconciliation package to repeal Obamacare will now need to include hundreds of billions of dollars of offsets. As Politico explains, the most conservative elements of the party will have no difficulty coming up with ideas, but they're not ones that the likes of Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, or other Senate Republicans up for reelection next year will want appearing in attack ads against them. (Another option: Republicans could simply send the current Senate parliamentarian packing and replace her with someone who'll let them do what they want. Wouldn't be the first time.)

It's almost like Republicans didn't entirely think this through before promising all sorts of things to the party base.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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