Kurt Schrader: Still optimistic on health care
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader says he's still optimistic about congressional action to maintain health care for millions despite a move by President Donald Trump to end subsidy payments to insurance companies.
The Oregon Democrat spoke at a breakfast Tuesday (Oct. 17) of the Westside Economic Alliance just hours before the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee agreed to a deal to continue subsidies for two years.
Schrader and colleagues from both parties have been working on a similar deal in the House.
Efforts to continue the subsidies, which help lower-income households afford insurance premiums, gained momentum after failed attempts by Republican congressional majorities to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"Getting 20 million people off health care isn't a plan," Schrader told the audience at the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland in Lake Oswego.
For people who earn too much to qualify for state-supported insurance through the Oregon Health Plan — but too little to afford coverage on their own — the 2010 law signed by President Barack Obama provides them with tax credits and insurers with subsidies that lower people's out-of-pocket costs.
As a member of the bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus, Schrader has been involved in backstage talks to deal with the subsidies and other issues — but far short of the repeal that Trump and Republicans have sought.
"We are drafting legislation as we speak and see if we can get some cosponsors and put it on the floor," Schrader said after his talk. "We want to put pressure on Congress to do what it is supposed to do — which is to take care of these people."
Schrader also sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with health-care legislation.
On Sept. 13, a month before Trump did the opposite, Schrader found himself among the 13 House members from both parties summoned to the White House to talk about continuation of health care subsidies and other issues.
Schrader said that when their proposed bipartisan fix came up, Trump asked: "Can I say it's repeal?"
The response from Schrader and others: "You can call it anything you want, Mr. President, if it actually fixes health care."
"As we have seen, he has gone the opposite way, so he is a work in progress," Schrader said.
Schrader has been in Congress since 2009. His 5th District includes most of Clackamas County and a sliver of Multnomah County — though not Washington County — but he is a frequent speaker at business forums.
The proposed tax code overhaul that Trump and Republicans say is their top priority, now that health-care repeal efforts have failed, also came up during the meeting.
Schrader said he is open to changes that simplify the code, lower rates for businesses and middle-class households, and eliminate or reduce tax breaks.
"Everyone is in favor of tax reform," he said. "No one wants to give up tax breaks to get there."
Unlike many Democrats, Schrader said, he has not jumped on criticism of a Republican tax-code framework that lacks details — such as the income brackets to which individual tax rates apply. He said without details, it is hard to assess potential effects.
"It's a whole level of angst that is making progress tough," he said.
On the other hand, Schrader said, Republicans are too willing to add to the national debt — currently estimated at $21 trillion — to approve a tax overhaul. He doubts that economic growth will generate enough taxes to offset budget deficits.
"I do not want whatever we do with tax reform to add to the deficit. That would be unconscionable," he said.
"I'm sad to say that a lot of my conservative Republican colleagues are more than willing to add to the debt. They were all big deficit-control guys when Democrats were in control. But when they take control, it's not so important anymore."
Republicans say they want to finish by the end of the year, but Schrader said the most recent effort at a tax-code overhaul took the better part of 1985 and 1986.
Schrader said he does not favor doing away with the federal estate tax, which because of a 2010 change applies only to individual estates topping $5.5 million and couples, $11 million. But he said he is open to listening to farmers, who may be land-rich but cash-poor.
Schrader said he would like to tap part of the billions in corporate overseas profits that could return to the United States if the tax code is overhauled — a process called repatriation — to be spent on public works.
But if a tax overhaul is deficit-neutral, he added, "it does not leave a lot left for infrastructure."
Schrader said after his talk that Trump shows a different side when he meets privately with members of Congress, as Trump did Sept. 13.
"He was more constrained than I have seen him in the past," Schrader said. "I had met him before he was elected president and he appeared to be as he is on TV — narcissistic and bombastic — but in the meeting he was pretty good and pretty solicitous."
On the other hand, Schrader said, Trump has since reversed conciliatory comments about health care and the fate of "dreamers," young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
"I am obviously not a huge fan of this president," Schrader told his audience. "But for your own mental sanity, don't take a lot of what he says to heart. He is really irrelevant to Washington, D.C. He causes my Republican colleagues all sorts of headaches."
Adds Schrader view on federal estate tax,