What might have been a routine update on the state of the federal budget Tuesday instead became the newest front in the ongoing political war over President Obama's signature health care law.
At issue: a revised estimate about how many people would voluntarily leave the workforce because they can get health care without necessarily holding down a job.
The Congressional Budget Office originally predicted that the availability of subsidies for low-income Americans to buy health insurance would result in about 800,000 people leaving full-time work by 2023. The revised estimate increases that number to about 2.5 million.
Republicans pounced, pointing at the nonpartisan office's estimate as proof of the Affordable Care Act's damaging effects on the economy. In a statement, House Speaker John Boehner said: "The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse."
Texas Republican John Cornyn took to the Senate floor with the same message. "The president's own health care policy ... is killing full-time work, and putting people in part-time work," he said.
Obama's White House wasted little time responding, sending Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman to the daily press briefing. There, Furman turned Cornyn's charge on its head, arguing that if some people are able to work part time and spend more time with their children, or if others can leave a job to start a business of their own without fear of losing health insurance, then these are good things happening because of the Affordable Care Act.
"This is a choice on the part of workers," Furman said. "I have no doubt that if, for example, we got rid of Social Security and Medicare, there are many 95-year-olds that would choose to work more. I don't think anyone would say that was a compelling argument to eliminate Social Security and Medicare," Furman said.
The White House also pointed out that on the topic of a longtime and separate Republican charge — that the law encourages businesses to lay off or reduce the hours of workers — the CBO found little evidence of this happening.
CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf also said during a news conference that the existence of employees who have the ability to choose not to work is proof that they will be better off.
"The Affordable Care Act is reducing the labor supply of lower-income people in our estimates partly because it is making them better off," he said. "It is providing a valuable benefit to them."
On the larger question of whether the health care law helps or hurts the budget picture, the CBO is sticking to its last analysis, done in 2012, that the law overall reduces federal deficits, Elmendorf said.
S.V. Dáte edits congressional and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.
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