BUSINESS
02/11/2014 01:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2014

White House Forcefully Defends Latest Health Care Law Change

WASHINGTON -- One of the president's top advisers on Tuesday accused Republicans of being transparently political in their criticisms of delays made to the Affordable Care Act.

Gene Sperling, the outgoing director of the White House National Economic Council, said that the administration's decision to further delay the employer mandate was designed to make the health care law less disruptive in its early years. Arguments otherwise came out of a partisan fixation with tearing the law down, he added.

"Let's just be honest -- the Republican criticism is that the president is taking into account the need to lessen disruptions to small businesses and employers?" Sperling said incredulously, speaking to a group of reporters at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

"Do you have any question that had he not made those adjustments, that the criticism would be coming from completely the other direction? So I find it unusual that the president goes out of his way and the team goes out of its way to have a smoother transition to new policies with less disruption for small businesses, and Republicans are complaining about that," Sperling added. "The only thing consistent about that position is that they consistently look for every possible way to criticize the ACA."

The forceful pushback was the first offered by the White House after it announced Monday that employers with 50 to 99 employees will not be required to provide them with health coverage until 2016, as opposed to 2015. Employers with 100 employees or more, meanwhile, will only be required to cover 70 percent of full-time workers in 2015, rather than 95 percent. And during a press conference on Tuesday, the president himself defended the decision to lesson the business penalties.

"This was an example of administratively, us making sure we are smoothing out this transition, giving people the opportunities to get right with the law, but recognizing that there are going to be circumstances in which people are trying to do the right thing but it may take a little bit of time," President Barack Obama said at a press conference later on Tuesday.

Even companies that were "operating in good faith," Obama added, could use some time to come under compliance with the law. "The purpose of the law is not to punish them," he said. "It is to simply make sure they are either providing health insurance to their employees or that they are helping bear the costs of their employees getting health insurance."

Still, it's hard to imagine that critics will be won over. Republicans have expressed two main complaints with the employer mandate delay, neither of which, GOP aides argue, are addressed in Sperling's point. The first is that the president is overstepping his authority by unilaterally changing the law, though the administration has defended its power to do so by citing a 1985 Supreme Court ruling. The second is that Obama is selectively choosing which provision to delay, and he should offer individuals relief from the mandate to purchase health care coverage he is doing so for businesses.

"We’re not bashing the delay — we’re expressing concern that they’re only delaying the mandate for business, but not for families and individuals," said one top GOP Senate aide.

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement on Monday: “The White House seems to have a new exemption from its failed law for a different group every month. It’s time to extend that exemption to families and individuals —not just businesses."

Extending that point, House Republicans have argued that it's pointless to pursue other legislative items like immigration reform because of doubts about the president's ability or willingness to see it through. Sperling was asked specifically about this argument.

"I think it is fairly transparent from their own comments that their problem on immigration is about internal division, not about the president," he responded. "You have already had a bipartisan bill pass the senate. And the idea that the President of the United States, listening to the views of businesses and small businesses about having a smooth and less disruptive transition [decided to delay the mandate], shows how this is very reasonable, practical and pragmatic president. So, I think there is zero validity to those claims."

There would be one way to actually test the claims' validity. The White House could instruct Senate Democrats to introduce a bill that delayed the employer mandate in exactly the same way that the president did through executive authority. But that won't be happening anytime soon, if ever. As Senate aides concede, lawmakers wouldn't let such a bill go through the chamber without seeking to change it. Republicans, in particular, would push for an addition of a delay in the individual mandate. And while some Senate Democrats might support such an inclusion, the White House would certainly not.

"For individuals," said Sperling, "there were more exceptions, more hardship [exceptions] built into the law. These are simply giving companies more time in the transition. That's the type of thing, if we were being non-political, I think many on the Republican side would find commendable by the president."

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