During pandemic, political fight over the ACA's future heats up

Common sense suggests the Republican effort to destroy the ACA during a deadly pandemic is a misguided. AG Bill Barr seems to agree.
Image: Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

Whether they realize it or not, millions of Americans have reason to be pleased that the Affordable Care Act exists right now.

As the Associated Press reported yesterday, "Without the law, people who recovered from COVID-19 and tried to purchase an individual health insurance policy could be turned down, charged higher premiums or have follow-up care excluded from coverage. Those considered vulnerable because of conditions such as respiratory problems or early-stage diabetes would have run into a wall of insurer suspicion."

And yet, it's against this backdrop that the Trump administration and several Republican state attorneys general are still fighting to tear down the ACA in its entirety. In fact, their case is now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the right hoping that five conservative justices will do what the Republican-led Congress failed to do in 2017: destroy "Obamacare."

Common sense suggests the GOP effort during a deadly pandemic is a misguided and politically ridiculous idea. The Associated Press' report added that some congressional Republicans in competitive contests are "unnerved" by the prospect of their party trying to "toss out a law that provides coverage to at least 20 million Americans" during a public-health crisis.

The White House doesn't appear to care. Donald Trump said as recently as late March that his position has not changed, and presidential spokesperson echoed the line to the AP.

Team Trump may not, however, be entirely united on this point. CNN reports today:

Attorney General William Barr made a last-minute push Monday to persuade the administration to modify its position in the Obamacare dispute that will be heard at the Supreme Court this fall, arguing that the administration should pull back from its insistence that the entire law be struck down.

According to the report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, the attorney general made his case directly to Vice President Mike Pence, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, members of the Domestic Policy Council, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and several other officials. As part of his argument, Barr said the administration could still ask the Supreme Court to oppose elements of the health care law, while encouraging the justices to leave key benefits in place.

This would be consistent with what we've previously learned. It was in March 2019 when the White House decided to endorse GOP litigation and call for the courts to tear down "Obamacare" in its entirety. Former U.S. Solicitor General Walker Dellinger responded at the time that Team Trump's position was both "legally indefensible" and "politically insane."

According to multiple reports, Bill Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar were inclined to agree and they urged the White House to choose a more responsible course. They were overruled, reportedly by Mick Mulvaney, who was the acting White House chief of staff at the time.

It appears Barr is trying once more before it's too late. According to CNN's report, the administration has until tomorrow to alter its filing to the high court. Yesterday's meeting with the attorney general reportedly "ended without a decision," though the clock is ticking.

Watch this space.