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With Democrats' Help, House Votes Against Obamacare


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Don Gonyea. The Affordable Care Act dominated political headlines again this week. Yesterday, the House passed a Republican bill that would allow insurance companies to renew individual health insurance policies even if the coverage does not provide all the benefits required by the new health care law.

More than three dozen Democrats joined Republicans in voting for that bill. That legislation would go further than the fix that President Obama announced on Thursday. NPR's Ailsa Chang has that report.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The House bill was called the Keep Your Health Plan Act, a harmless enough name, but for Democrats who wanted desperately to find a way to help people getting cancellation notices from insurers, there was one problem. The bill's leading sponsors were the same House Republicans bent on delaying the funding or repealing the Affordable Care Act.

So President Obama's announcement one day before the House vote was meant to give Democrats an escape hatch.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ASA smoothly has put a burden on Democrats whether they're running or not.

CHANG: The President's plan would let insurance companies offer current policies for another year, as would the House proposal. Problem solved, right? Well, not for some Democrats getting bombarded by Republican attack ads back home for supporting the health care law. Like Nick Rahall of West Virginia. He voted yes on the bill, in part because he says he thinks legislation is stronger than executive action.

REPRESENTATIVE NICK RAHALL: The President's actions need to be reaffirmed, in my opinion, by the Congress.

CHANG: Thirty-nine Democrats broke from their party's leadership to vote for the Republican bill. Nearly all of them face competitive races in 2014. Democrat Ron Barber of Arizona is one of the biggest targets on the Republican hit list, and he says he voted for the House bill to make it clear to his constituents he's going to be tough on the problems with the new health care law.

REPRESENTATIVE RON BARBER: It's not as if they haven't seen me act and campaign in that direction. I've fulfilled my campaign promises, which is I'm going to take a serious look at the things we need to fix. But as far as what happens next year, I think Winston Churchill once said a week is a long time in politics. In this day and age, five minutes is a long time in politics.

CHANG: But other Democrats say these defections were shortsighted. They point out the House bill would let insurance companies sell substandard policies to new customers, not just current ones. Frank Pallone of New Jersey says letting those plans multiple in the market strikes at the very heart of the Affordable Care Act.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK PALLONE: Upton's bill practical effect would be to continue to allow insurers to exclude people from coverage based on preexisting conditions, allow insurers to change women twice as much as men for the same coverage.

CHANG: And such is the problem with trying to achieve a legislative fix on legislation half of congress hates. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: The only way we're actually going to get things fixed, it seems to me, as long as the House is intent on undoing Obamacare one way or another, is by the administration doing things on its own. So I think what the President did is exactly the right thing.

CHANG: President Obama has already said he'll veto the bill but several Democratic senators are discussing ways to push the president's policy further, like extending it to last more than a year or demanding stronger oversight so insurance companies won't try to get away with excessive rates. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.