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Obamacare controversy hits close to home for Capitol Hill staff

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe
The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe

By Caren Bohan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers opposed to Obamacare have been grappling with a predicament of their own making as they decide whether to move their staff into the new insurance marketplaces tied to President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.

More than three years ago, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa proposed an amendment to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, requiring U.S. lawmakers and their aides to purchase insurance coverage on the new online marketplaces, known as exchanges.

"The more that Congress experiences the laws we pass, the better the laws are likely to be," Grassley said at the time.

Obama's Democratic Party, which in 2009 controlled both chambers of Congress, saw it largely as a political stunt by Republicans who view the law as government overreach and have campaigned to scrap it. But Democrats included Grassley's proposal anyway in the bill that became law in 2010.

House lawmakers faced a deadline of 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Thursday to decide whether to fully follow the requirement, or exploit a loophole that allows them to keep certain staff on their existing health insurance plans.

As Republicans and Obama wage a public battle over whether the administration is forcing a questionable social policy on millions of Americans, this mini-drama on Capitol Hill has personal implications for thousands of congressional aides.

While there is no significant concern that it will cause a brain drain from congressional offices or force staffers onto substandard plans, there is some angst.

A House Republican aide said staff were nervous because they did not know how much their health costs might increase.

"That's part of the problem - we have very limited information on what our new plans are going to look like," the aide said.

Republicans have sought to derail the healthcare overhaul since Obama took office in 2009, culminating in a 16-day government shutdown this month that has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor's ratings agency. The law that was passed in Obama's first term and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, mandates that everyone must have health insurance or pay a fine.

Republican lawmakers are doubling down on the notion that lawmakers and their aides should take their own medicine. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, have decided that their staff will get coverage through the online marketplace.

Republicans are also reveling in the fact that some powerful Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are planning to take advantage of the flexibility and allowing some aides to stay on their existing plans.

"All the people that pushed Obamacare the hardest and bragged about the exchanges are refusing to put their people on the exchanges. It's bizarre," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell.

Not all Republicans plan to move their entire staff onto Obamacare.

At a closed-door meeting of Republicans this week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa expressed reservations about putting House employees into an exchange when he is fighting against pushing any Americans into the exchanges, a House Republican aide said.

An Issa aide confirmed late on Thursday that Issa would keep his staff out of the exchange.

(Reporting By Caren Bohan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)

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