The new Republican-controlled Senate tossed its first salvo in the effort to end Obamacare on Wednesday, with two top senators introducing legislation to repeal the healthcare plan's individual mandate that could cost each American taxpayer without insurance as much as $95 when they file their taxes this year.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, would end the mandate that took effect last year. Called the American Liberty Restoration Act, the legislation was backed by 20 Republican senators.
"Forcing Americans to purchase insurance goes against our nation’s history of individual liberty," said Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "This legislation strikes Obamacare’s individual mandate and restores the freedoms outlined in the Constitution.
"Washington should continue to work toward finding a way to equip patients with the tools needed to obtain access to health insurance, but not in a way that attacks the spirit of the Constitution and our treasured history of limited government," Hatch said.
"How can we continue to enforce the individual mandate when the law doesn’t clearly ensure that millions of Americans are allowed to receive subsidies to help cover the cost?" asked Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "How can we enforce it when Obamacare outlaws plans that fit family budgets?
"Millions more Americans are in for sticker shock when they see how much they owe the IRS in April because of Obamacare," he said. "We need to focus on making healthcare plans affordable to Americans."
The proposal takes aim at the core of the Affordable Care Act, considered President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement. The mandate survived a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court challenge seeking to overturn it on constitutional grounds.
The key vote came from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
But in March, the justices will hear another challenge to the healthcare law that could require 13 states with their own health exchanges to drop Americans who receive Obamacare subsidies. The ruling could gut a large part of the healthcare law's financing.
The Republican-controlled House has voted more than 50 times to repeal or defund Obamacare. None of those bills, however, were considered by the Senate, which had been controlled by Democrats until this month.
The new Senate, in which the GOP controls 54 seats, is expected to take up bills in the coming weeks that set a 40-hour work week as the threshold, not the current 32 set by Obamacare,
and that repeal a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices.
Under the individual mandate, most Americans were required to obtain health coverage beginning last year, or pay an annual penalty to the IRS.
The escalating fee is scheduled
to top out next year at 2.5 percent of household income or $695 per person, whichever is higher. For this year, the penalty is 2 percent of income, or $325 per individual. The maximum for families under the latter assessment is $975.
However, if for those who did not have health insurance last year, they will pay 1 percent of income when filing their 2014 tax return, or $95 per person, with a family cap of $285.
The House voted last March to delay the individual mandate's penalties for one year.
In addition, the Health and Human Services Department said Wednesday that at least 400,000 people signed up for insurance under Obamacare last week. The figure brought total enrollment in the 37 states served by the national HealthCare.gov website to more than 7.1 million.
The department has a total goal of 9.1 million. The open enrollment period ends Feb. 15.
According to Senate aides, the legislation Hatch and Alexander introduced Wednesday should eventually come up for a vote in the upper chamber.
The Obama administration had no immediate comment on the bill, but Obama vowed during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that he would veto any legislation that sought to stop any of his major efforts, including Obamacare.
"We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix," Obama said in addressing the first Republican Congress of his presidency. "And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto."
At a news conference in November, Obama said: "The individual mandate is a line I can't cross."
The mandate has been critical to Obamacare's success. It has been seen as key to encouraging young, healthy consumers to sign up for coverage.
If not, insurers will have to raise their rates — and that would discourage even more young customers from buying coverage and leading to the "death spiral" that Republicans and other critics have steadily warned about.
Other Republicans supporting the bill include: Sens. Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire); John Barrasso (Wyoming); Roy Blunt (Missouri); Richard Burr (North Carolina); Dan Coats (Indiana); Thad Cochran (Mississippi); Susan Collins (Maine); John Cornyn (Texas); Deb Fischer (Nebraska); Chuck Grassley (Iowa); Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma); Johnny Isakson (Georgia); Mark Kirk (Illinois); Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); Rob Portman (Ohio); Jim Risch (Idaho); Pat Roberts (Kansas); Marco Rubio (Florida); John Thune (South Dakota); and Roger Wicker (Mississippi).
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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