Democrats hit back, weakly, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's "Good for America" and Rep. Gregory Meeks' "What America Needs." And then the White House stepped in with a killer line: "It's. The. Law." The tweet was accompanied by a photo of the president's signature on the Affordable Care Act, dated March 23, 2010.
Case closed: What part of "It's. The. Law." don't you understand? Just to add emphasis, in early June President Obama dismissed concerns that the national health care startup was not going well. "This is the way the law was designed to work," he told an audience in California. "Since everyone's saying how it's not going to happen, I think it's important for us to recognize and acknowledge that this is working the way it's supposed to."
Now, however, it appears the administration's bravado was all for show. At the same time Obama was expressing great confidence, White House officials were secretly meeting with representatives of big business to discuss ways to postpone enforcement of parts of the new law. And on Tuesday the White House announced that the employer mandate -- sometimes described as a "crucial" element of Obamacare -- will be delayed to 2015 from its scheduled start on Jan. 1, 2014.
Treasury Department official Mark Mazur called the delay "transition relief." "We have heard concerns about the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively," Mazur wrote late Tuesday. "We have listened to your feedback. And we are taking action."
The move stunned Republicans in Congress, who immediately asked: Whose feedback? What businesses were meeting with the White House? What deals did they make?
"These communications and the decision-making process related to the delay... have not been disclosed publicly," wrote House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton in a letter to the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. Along with 13 other Republican committee members, Upton demanded the administration reveal which businesses and which government officials were involved in the decision.
But the bigger question for Republicans is how to handle the administration's surprise retreat. Should they focus on secrecy, as Upton & Co. are doing? Should they push the White House to explain how Obamacare can still work when large employers don't have to pay fines for not covering workers and, perhaps more importantly, don't have to report their employees' health care information to the giant new Obamacare bureaucracy, so the bureaucracy can determine whether those employees are eligible to buy coverage on the exchanges? Or should Republicans just keep pressing for repeal of the whole thing?
"I think we'll almost certainly be sticking to a full repeal message all the way," says one GOP Senate aide. "The question here is for the administration -- not us -- and it's basically this: At what point will they realize that this law is unworkable?"
Probably never. When key Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote, after the delay announcement, that, "We are full steam ahead for the marketplaces opening on Oct. 1," she was reflecting the administration's determination to get the health care exchanges up and running no matter what. Delay the employer mandate? OK. Waive this or that rule? Fine. Just make sure the exchanges get going.
There's a reason for that.
Obamacare is designed to increase the number of Americans who depend on the government to pay for health insurance. It will expand the Medicaid rolls, and it will give subsidies to millions of individuals and families to purchase insurance on the exchanges. In all, the government will be transferring hundreds of billions of dollars to Americans for health coverage.
The White House knows that once those payments begin, repealing Obamacare will no longer be an abstract question of removing legislation not yet in effect. Instead, it will be a very real matter of taking money away from people. It's very, very hard to do that.
So yes, retreating on the employer mandate was a big deal. But the White House would rather do that than endanger the flow of money that is the heart of Obamacare. The White House will not waver on that, no matter what Republicans say or do.