An Obamacare fix that labor unions sought didn't make it into a final deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, and Senate Republicans and Democrats are in a dispute over whether it was ever part of the agreement.
Labor groups have been pushing for a number of delays or carve-outs from the health care law's mandates, and they thought they were positioned early this week to win a delay of a fee they view as overly punitive and harmful to their insurance plans.
But a Senate GOP leadership aide told the Washington Examiner that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never agreed to allow a specific fix for organized labor in his negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., even though Democrats were pushing one.
“[It] was a game to try to show the unions they were fighting for them,” remarked another Senate Republican aide.
Democrats counter that it was definitely part of an early agreement between Reid and McConnell, and say McConnell only backed away from it once it became public and unions applauded the move. Some Republicans and outside conservative groups also started grumbling about what they viewed as special treatment for Obama's most loyal supporters.
“It was in the agreement, and McConnell agreed to it before pulling back after the unions started crowing,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
Earlier this week, the union fix was widely reported as being included in a prospective deal in exchange for Republicans winning a provision that forces Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to certify that individuals receiving Obamacare subsidies meet a required income level to qualify.
The income verification provision ended up as the only change to Obamacare in the final agreement, dealing a blow to Tea Party House conservatives and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, who had pushed their party to shut down the government in an attempt to delay or defund the health care law.
The so-called union fix, a delay in a reinsurance fee, was left out of the deal completely.
As part of Obamacare, the reinsurance tax was supposed to be levied against all insurance plans to share the risk for insurers taking on the sickest patients next year.
The fee is $63 per person covered by an insurance plan per year, so delaying it would protect union insurance plans as well as all insurance companies from taking a major hit just as workers start to use the health law’s insurance exchanges.
Republicans are generally opposed to a carve-out for unions, which are among Obama's staunchest supporters and helped pushed through Obamacare. But because many conservatives also see the reinsurance fee as a tax on all insurers, Democrats thought Republicans might be more open to including a delay of it in a broader deal this week.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Examiner on Monday that conservatives would find it difficult to swallow any budget deal this week that includes a specific tweak to Obamacare benefitting unions without also delaying the requirement on all individuals to purchase insurance or face a fine.
“That would be a real overreach on the part of Democrats,” Grassley said Monday afternoon.
He said that “a senator that has holds on every Obama administration official” could try to filibuster a bill allowing the concession to unions.
Grassley’s colleagues said they believed he was referring to either Cruz or Lee, who have led the charge to delay or defund Obamacare in a government funding bill.
Conservative groups also said any deal that includes a fix for unions while keeping the individual mandate intact would be a gift for pro-Obama specials interests and further evidence that the health care law should be repealed or defunded entirely.
“Here we are on the brink of defaulting on our nation's debts, and the Senate majority leader is being bossed around by unions?” asked Fred Wszolek of the Workplace Fairness Institute.
“It's just more proof that what Jimmy Hoffa wants, Jimmy Hoffa gets,” he said, referring to the president of the Teamsters union.