HELENA — Republicans in control of the Montana Legislature are planning early votes next week in opposition to the new federal health care law, putting the spotlight on a major campaign theme for many in the GOP.
Both the state Senate and House will take up bills next Wednesday that in some way oppose state implementation of the federal law, Republican leaders said. Their action is intended to coincide with a scheduled U.S. House vote on repealing the law.
President Barack Obama's signature expansion of health insurance relies heavily on state agencies that administer government programs. Republicans in the state Legislature want to stymie the plan.
One state GOP proposal would force Montana to join an ongoing lawsuit opposing it. Another proposal would prohibit any Montanan from being forced to participate in the changes or be fined for not doing so.
The bills will get committee hearings next Wednesday, but follow usual procedure toward committee votes and floor action, GOP leaders said.
"There is a heavy toll if Obamacare is implemented and it comes to Montana, all those mandates carry a cost for Montana," said Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell.
So far, 20 states have joined in the legal fight challenging the constitutionality of the law. They argue it violates rights by forcing people to buy health insurance by 2014 or face penalties.
The Obama administration counters that Americans should not be allowed to opt out of the overhaul because everyone requires medical care, and say states do not have standing to challenge the law.
One judge has already ruled the insurance requirement unconstitutional in a case likely to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sen. Jason Priest, who is carrying the bill forcing the attorney general to join the lawsuit, said it should cost the state less than $50,000 to join. He said it will cost the state millions to implement the health care law once programs like Medicaid, which require state matching money, have been expanded.
Sen. Carol Williams, a Missoula Democrat, said the opposition to the health care law is largely symbolic and ineffectual. She said it takes time away from the issues that should be the top priority for state lawmakers, such as finding ways to create jobs.
Williams said the first pieces of the health care reform to be implemented include a ban on insurance companies canceling coverage due to pre-existing coverage and letting parents keep children on health plans until college age. She argued such reforms are popular.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said the early spotlight on health care doesn't mean it's the top priority for Republicans in time. He said the health care bills were ready to go, and it made sense to focus on them while Congress was debating the issue next week.
"The national health care is a huge issue," Milburn said. "It is not popular in the nation, and it is not popular here."
Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has so far not joined the lawsuit. Earlier this year he told Republican state legislators that he thinks the case has little chance of success, and is more about politics than policy.