Budget negotiators bypassed GOP-erected roadblocks to health care reform in the deal cut Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

In the weekend drama Congress approved a stopgap measure giving members this week to consider and vote on a compromise spending package for this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. Details of that compromise, which would cut about $39 billion from spending levels set earlier this year, are still under review although congressional leaders believe they will receive enough votes for approval.

To reach the deal, Democrats agreed that the final 2011 package would be paired with Senate votes on two other bills that mimic controversial riders: a proposal involving abortion services and one to bar federal agencies from using funds to implement the health care law, a senior Democratic leadership aide was reported as saying. Republican lawmakers leaving Friday night’s caucus said they were told those votes would occur, perhaps as soon as this week.

According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price predicted that the separate Senate votes would appease House GOP lawmakers who had been pushing hard for the riders. But Price also seemed to suggest that the effort, and upcoming vote, is somewhat symbolic at this stage.

“Those are pluses that I don’t think many of us dreamed we would be able to get,” the Georgia Republican told Roll Call. “So I think they’re huge — to put folks on record as to whether or not they support the government takeover of health care. Part of all of this is to demonstrate to the American people that there is a huge contrast between the leadership of the left and the leadership of the right.”

As the countdown to a government shutdown ticked on Friday night, Democrats and Republicans offered fundamentally different accounts of the reason agreement could not be reached: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was all about spending, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the problem was a host of riders sought by the GOP.

One of the most contentious of those riders concerned government funding for Planned Parenthood. The Hyde Amendment already prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions, and Planned Parenthood uses only privately raised funds for abortion services that the group says constitutes only 3% of its total services. However, some Republicans also pressed the view that federal funds should not be used to any group that assists abortions, even with private funding.

Less publicized riders included variously worded measures to undercut the year-old federal health reform law. Riders attached by the House in its budget proposal sought to:

  • Prohibit funding for the IRS to implement health care reform.
  • Prohibit funds for a White House director of health care reform.
  • Strip funding for any provision of the health care reform law.
  • Prohibit the payment of salaries for any officer or employee of any federal department or agency with respect to carrying out the health care reform law.
  • Bar funds to implement the individual mandate and penalties and reporting requirements of the health care reform law.
  • Block funds for Health Insurance Exchanges, a set of state-regulated health care plans offered under the health care reform law.
  • Prohibit funds for salaries for any officer or employee of the government to issue regulations on essential benefits described in health care reform law.
  • Prohibit funds to carry out the medical loss ratio restrictions in the health care reform law. These provisions require insurers to spend at least a certain percentage of their premium revenues on medical care.

The latter rider would have been welcomed by group benefit brokers, whose commissions are at risk if lumped into the MLR calculations.
Currently, it appears Republican strategists will settle for a symbolic vote on health reform implementation, then look for other ways to achieve a roadblock. That will likely include high-profile efforts to make health reform an issue in 2012 budget negotiations – and the presidential election.

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