(Bloomberg Politics) — Some Republicans are winding up for a possible ruling on King vs. Burwell by prepping some credible-looking alternatives. If the Supreme Court rules that errant language in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) prohibits any tax subsidies going to customers in states without their own exchanges, the conservative 2017 Project, the chairman of the House budget committee, and at least one senator who’s trailing in his 2016 re-election have ideas. All of them have sussed out ways to react to an adverse ruling by extending some subsidies as the law is wound down.
And then there is South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who arrived in the Senate after defeating senator-turned-health care wonk Tom Daschle. His spin on the lawsuit confounded much of the Internet.
On its own terms, this was difficult or impossible to parse. The aforementioned 6 million people living in states that count on the federal exchange to sell plans were not at risk until lawsuits were filed to end the subsidies. If the loss of subsidies was bad for the American people, then how was that the fault of the administration, who argued against the plaintiffs and called the legal challenge dilatory? Thune’s Twitter timeline became a torrent of people wondering what he was talking about. Even conservatives started to ask if Thune realized how tightly he’d been wrapped around the axel.
The people arguing to kill subsidies have made a series of arguments about the utility of the case. The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon has probably been the most explicit in arguing that killing the subsidies for exchange-less states would also liberate customers from the mandates that required insurance in the first place.
Thune was making no normative argument against the law. Republicans had worried that once Obamacare was real, too many people would be making use of the law (and attendant subsidies or Medicaid) for form a constituency against it. Even as polls have shown a persistent rejection of the law, the growing number of people who’ve purchased plans — some after their old plans were disrupted by the law — have become a problem. And Thune was punting on the responsibility for bailing those people out.
As a member of the Senate GOP’s leadership, Thune has marched in step with Republicans who reject any legislative tweak that would allow the 6 million plans to be subsidized without disruption. Today’s tweet showed the danger of stumbling on that point, even slightly.