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John Hood: Burr under Obama’s saddle

RALEIGH — As the State of the Union address by President Obama and the Republican response aptly demonstrated, the next two years are more likely to feature confrontation rather than conciliation in Washington.


No longer concerned about electoral consequences for himself, Obama will offer full-throated support for soak-the-rich schemes, environmental obstructionism, and other causes near and dear to his liberal base. For their part, the Republicans now leading both chambers of Congress will spend much of the next two years forcing their Democratic colleagues to vote on conservative bills — fully expecting that most of them will draw vetoes from the president, thus framing the national political debate for 2016.


So far, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know or haven’t already heard. But here’s the kicker: I think that there are at least two issues on which Congress and the Obama administration might actually work out an accommodation. And in both cases, I predict that North Carolina’s own Sen. Richard Burr will be in the thick of the action.


On the president’s signature program, the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans can’t force him to accept a complete repeal and replacement just by making the same arguments louder. Their hopes lie with the U.S. Supreme Court. Later this year, it will rule on a lawsuit challenging the legality of tax credits provided to Americans who purchase ACA-compliant health plans through federally run insurance exchanges.


There is at least a 50-50 chance that the Court will rule against the administration. The plain text of the ACA clearly limits the availability of tax credits to states that run their own exchanges. Democrats and the White House claim this is little more than a drafting error. Republicans and the plaintiffs, however, point to numerous pieces of evidence showing at least some of the Democrats who drafted the bill intended to make tax credits contingent on state exchanges. They assumed that the prospect of generous federal tax subsidies would induce states to set up exchanges, thus alleviating the administrative burden on the federal government.


It didn’t work.


Over the past two years, Burr joined with two Senate colleagues in crafting a Republican alternative to Obamacare. It provides tax credits for the purchase of health plans, but neither limits their eligibility to state exchanges nor imposes the individual mandates, employer mandates, and draconian regulations that Obamacare contains.


A few days ago, Burr told a gathering of health policy experts that the Republican-led Congress needed to act quickly to back his bill or some other alternative. Not only would this serve to contrast the GOP approach with the president’s unpopular program, he explained, but it could also affect the court case. “We should have a plan or framework visible by early March to improve the comfort level of the Supreme Court in striking down the exchanges,” Burr said. If that happens, Obama may be willing to sign a GOP bill that reauthorizes tax credits while deregulating the exchanges. The alternative might be worse in his eyes.


The other issue to watch is Guantanamo Bay. President Obama has spent much of his tenure promising to close its detention facility, all the while trying to figure out what to do with the dangerous terrorists held there. Some of the detainees already released have ended up back on the battlefield targeting Americans.


Unfortunately, the drubbing of the president’s party last November appears to have emboldened rather than chastened him on Guantanamo. The administration has accelerated the release of detainees. Burr is among several senators who are trying to block the move while engaging President Obama on the issue. Does he really want to be responsible for releasing terrorists who plan to kill Americans? The senators believe they can reason with him. I hope they are right.


During his two terms in the Senate, Richard Burr has been a workhorse, not a showhorse. So quite a few North Carolinians have formed no strong opinions about him one way or the other. The coming battles over health care and terrorism detainees could change that.



Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.



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