Wall Street Journal
By Kristina Peterson and John D. McKinnon
November 17, 2013
WASHINGTON—Furor over the botched implementation of President Barack Obama's health-care law has allowed Congress to engage in a familiar activity: procrastination.
Prospects already were dim for substantial legislation in the dwindling days of 2013, but the headline-grabbing fights over the federal health exchange and canceled insurance policies have given House Republicans no incentive to change the subject. The issue has drowned out talk of an immigration overhaul, taken the focus off high-stakes budget talks and stalled efforts to rewrite the tax code.
Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the health law 'will be the defining issue in 2014.' Bloomberg News
For House Republicans, the health-care fight offers a winning political message expected to carry them through the 2014 midterm elections, said Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees GOP House campaigns.
"It will be the defining issue in 2014," as Republicans frame the health law as prime evidence of Democrats' "big government takeover," Mr. Walden said at a Friday breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) made clear the House wouldn't be taking action soon on a rewrite of immigration laws.
"I've certainly been frustrated as other issues have squeezed it out," said Rep. Jeff Denham of California, one of a handful of Republicans running in districts won in 2012 by the president who want a broad immigration overhaul. Mr. Denham, who shares his party's concerns over the health law, noted that other issues, including the debate over whether to take military action in Syria and ongoing budget fights, have impeded the House's ability to consider immigration.
"Any issue that does not have an exact timeline always gets moved," he said. "Immigration is one of those issues."
Still, Republicans were unlikely to tackle an immigration overhaul this year regardless of the health law. Conservative lawmakers revolted against a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in June that provides a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants living in the U.S. House Republicans have said they plan to consider their own immigration bills under a step-by-step approach, but have yet to schedule any floor votes.
But now, even in swing districts, Republicans are confident that health-care concerns will trump frustration over a lack of progress on immigration.
"Voters are more motivated when something is taken away from them," said Mr. Walden, speaking of people whose insurance policies were canceled. He predicted the House would tackle immigration at some point before the 2014 election while the health law's problems would multiply.
Democrats said the raging health-care debate is just what Republicans want to obscure the fact they have no major legislative initiatives on their agenda.
"They don't have anything positive that they want to talk about," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.). "They will talk about [the health law] until the cows come home.''
In recent days, House GOP leaders signaled they are taking a go-slow approach on a tax-code overhaul. GOP aides said the bill could become an unwelcome distraction for Republicans, drawing public attention away from the health-law imbroglio.
In the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a tax overhaul already was considered a heavy lift because it requires difficult trade-offs between cutting taxes and eliminating deductions. The panel has other important issues on its plate as well, including major trade deals on the horizon.
Republicans on the committee "have maintained a complete focus on undermining the Affordable Care Act," said Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), the panel's top Democrat, in a recent letter to Chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.). "That obsession has come at the detriment of so many other important issues that should be the focus" of the committee, Mr. Levin wrote.
Michelle Dimarob, a spokeswoman for the chairman, said the committee continues to work hard to come up with a tax bill that includes all stakeholders, including Democrats. "That isn't just empty rhetoric, and when the bill is released it will include ideas from both parties and from across the political spectrum," she said.
The health-care fracas hasn't stopped talk among a bipartisan group of budget negotiators given the task of agreeing to a plan by Dec. 13. But with no consequences until the government's current funding runs out Jan. 15, little progress is expected soon.
One lawmaker in the talks was hopeful that the political hit Democrats are taking over the health law might make them more eager to reach a budget deal. "Both sides need a victory,'' said Rep. Tom Cole (R., Okla.). "We hurt ourselves with the government shutdown. They hurt themselves with the [health law].''
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