By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats sought to turn the latest controversy over Obamacare and the economy into a positive political message on Sunday by casting an expected decline in American work hours as a boon to worker freedom and family values.
In a new partisan tussle over election messaging that is likely to color this year's congressional mid-term campaign, Democratic lawmakers said a predicted drop in work hours brought about by Obamacare would mean more family time for mothers, more study opportunities for college students and less job stress for older workers.
"The single mom, who's raising three kids (and) has to keep a job because of healthcare, can now spend some time raising those kids. That's a family value," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said on NBC's Sunday program, "Meet the Press."
He was responding to a fiscal report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on Tuesday that said President Barack Obama's healthcare law would bring about a drop in work hours equal to the loss of 2.5 million full-time workers over the next decade.
The change would occur because some workers, particularly those with lower wages, would limit their hours to avoid losing federal subsidies that Obamacare provides to help pay for health insurance and other healthcare costs, according to CBO.
Republicans have seized on the CBO report to help support their own messaging campaign for middle-class voters, calling its contents evidence that Obama's signature domestic policy achievement will reduce full-time employment and hurt the economy unless it is repealed.
Both parties are working to craft messages on a range of issues that can turn out the vote of loyal constituencies in November's off-year election, which will determine who controls the Senate and House of Representatives in the final two years of the Obama presidency.
A chief aim of Republicans is to gain control of the Senate by using Obamacare's unpopularity with voters to discourage support for vulnerable Democrats in states with large conservative populations.
Democrats have emphasized the law's benefits for people who are sick, nearing retirement, starting a career or trying to finish up college. Obama has also challenged Republicans to come up with their own reforms.
Republicans, who have voted more than 40 times in the House to repeal or defund Obamacare, have also decided to seek their own cure. But a single plan for an alternative healthcare policy has proved elusive so far.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to be enrolled in health coverage by March 31 or pay a penalty. It has already extended health coverage to millions of Americans by offering subsidized private plans and expanding the Medicaid program for the poor in participating states.
The CBO said the subsidies, which help people pay health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, would "reduce incentives to work" and impose an "implicit tax on working" for those returning to a job with health insurance.
"Any law you pass that discourages people from working can't be a good idea. Why would we want to do that? Why would we think that was a good thing? How does that allow people to prepare for the time when they don't work?" Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday."
But Democrats refused to say the report put them on the defensive politically. Schumer likened the prospect of fewer work hours to the adoption of the 40-hour work week in the 20th century, which he described as a benefit that also reduced work hours.
"This is a good thing," said Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
"We need a better work-life balance. Ask a working mother if she could use a few more hours in a day to take care of her family," he told ABC's "This Week".
Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who appeared alongside Ellison on ABC, dismissed the argument out of hand.
"It's great spin. I don't think it's going to work," he said.
(Editing by Jim Loney; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)