House Fires Shot at Health Care Law, Seeking to Alter Critical Coverage Rule

The House on Thursday easily passed legislation that would redefine a full-time worker under the Affordable Care Act, brushing aside qualms from conservatives and liberals who fear the bill would prompt employers to cut worker hours to avoid being forced to offer them health insurance.

The Save American Workers Act, which passed the House by 252 to 172 in the face of a presidential veto threat, would change the definition of a full-time worker under the health law from one who works 30 hours a week to one who works 40 hours. A dozen Democrats joined all Republicans in support of the bill.

The measure has become a symbol for Republican efforts to chip away at the health care law, the president’s signature domestic achievement.

Under the health law’s mandate for employers, businesses with 50 or more employees will be required to offer health insurance to any employee who works at least 30 hours, or pay a penalty. That mandate began phasing in this month.

By adjusting that threshold to 40 hours, Republicans — strongly backed by a number of business groups — said that they would re-establish the traditional 40-hour workweek and prevent businesses cutting costs from radically trimming worker hours to avoid mandatory insurance coverage. They contend that the most vulnerable workers are low-skilled and underpaid, working 30 to 35 hours a week, and now facing cuts to 29 hours so their employers do not have to insure them.

With passage of the law, those workers would not have to get employer-sponsored health care, and their workweek would remain intact.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it has some Democratic support, possibly even enough to muster 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, both Democrats, are co-sponsors of the measure, which will be one of the first tests of Democratic unity for a party that is in the minority in the Senate for the first time since 2007.

The bill has little chance of becoming law, however. An official at the White House said this week that President Obama would veto it if it reached him. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, vowed to sustain the president’s veto.

“Mr. President, you say you care about those who have fallen on hard times. Show it, and sign this bill,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California. “You care about low-income workers, about working women, and about small businesses. Then show it, and sign this bill.”

But many economists, including Congress’s official scorekeeper, see it differently. This week, the Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would prompt 1 million people to be dropped from employer coverage, pushing from 500,000 to 1 million people onto government insurance and increasing the number with no insurance by hundreds of thousands. That would raise federal spending by $53.2 billion over the next decade.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, mocked Republicans for suggesting they were watching out for the working poor by ensuring they would not receive mandated health coverage unless they worked 40 hours a week.

“I’m sure every American worker is saying: thank God the Republicans are going to have me work 10 more hours before I can get health insurance. Aren’t you generous?” Mr. Hoyer said.

At issue is how far employers would go to avoid mandated coverage. More than half of all workers maintain at least a 40-hour workweek. Far fewer work only 30 hours a week. Budget office experts and other economists say that in a strengthening labor market, few employers would cut worker hours from 40 a week to 29, but many would be willing to cut them to 39 from 40. That means raising the definition of a full-time worker under the health care law would put far more workers at risk.

House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio on Thursday pointed to Democratic support for the measure and accused the president of obstructing bipartisanship.

Democrats called the measure a misguided effort to undermine a health care law that has steeply lowered the number of uninsured in the country and has helped slow the growth of health care costs.

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