WASHINGTON (AP) — A Congress that began with bright hopes for immigration legislation is ending in bitter divisions on the issue even as some Republicans warn that the political imperative for acting is stronger than ever for the GOP.
In place of a legislative solution, President Barack Obama’s recent executive action to curb deportations for millions here illegally stands as the only federal response to what all lawmakers agree is a dysfunctional immigration system. Many Democrats are convinced Latino voters will reward them for Obama’s move in the 2016 presidential and Senate elections, while some Republicans fear they will have a price to pay.
“If we don’t make some down payment toward a rational solution on immigration in 2015, early 2016, good luck winning the White House,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an author of the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year with bipartisan support, but stalled in the GOP-led House.
With the expiration of the 113th Congress this month, that bill will officially die, along with its path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in this country illegally.
Immigration is certain to be a focus for the new, fully Republican-led Congress when it convenes in January — but there’s little expectation the GOP will make another attempt at comprehensive reforms.
Instead, GOP leaders in the House and Senate have pledged to take action to block Obama’s executive moves, setting up a battle for late February when funding expires for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration matters. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has promised action on a border security bill as part of that.
Whether Congress can do anything to stop Obama remains unclear, since he’s certain to veto any effort to undo his executive moves. It’s also not clear lawmakers could pass a border bill, or that Obama would sign it if they did.
While some congressional Republicans are arguing for action on piecemeal reforms, most advocates are resigned to waiting until a new president takes office in 2017 for lawmakers to make another attempt at a comprehensive overhaul that resolves the central immigration dilemma — the status of the millions here illegally.
“They had the best chance in a generation and they couldn’t get enough support from the Republican caucus,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. “It may well be that they’re going to have to lose the White House and both chambers of Congress for us to get comprehensive immigration reform.”
When Obama won a second term in 2012 with strong Hispanic and Asian support, many national Republican leaders decided they needed to support policies that would attract those growing blocs of voters. The Republican National Committee formally embraced support for comprehensive immigration reform as a guiding principle for the GOP.
But legislative efforts stalled in the House as conservative Republicans balked at Boehner’s efforts to advance the issue. Last summer’s crisis over an influx of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving at the border caused shelter overloads and case backlogs, straining resources and creating the impression that the border was out of control — further souring political prospects for reform legislation.
In absence of congressional efforts, Obama promised he would act on his own, and he made good on that shortly after last month’s midterm elections, announcing an array of changes that will include work permits and three-year deportation stays for some 4 million immigrants here illegally. It mostly applies to those who’ve been here more than five years and have kids who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
The move inflamed Republicans, who have been fighting about it ever since, including a failed effort by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to block Obama in a Senate floor vote this past weekend. On Tuesday the dispute spilled over into debate on Obama’s nominee to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Sarah Saldana, the U.S. attorney in Dallas. She was confirmed 55-39 by the Senate over objections from Republicans who had initially supported her but turned against her because of her support for Obama’s executive actions.
Meanwhile, some immigration advocates complained that the steps didn’t go far enough as Obama faced criticism from both sides of the political divide.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll found that most Americans support allowing immigrants living in the country illegally a way to stay here lawfully. But only 43 percent of them think Obama was right to take executive action to make those changes, while 54 percent of them say he should have kept trying to make a deal with Republicans. Still, the poll also showed little sign of blowback for Obama. Although 57 percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of the immigration issue, that was down slightly from 63 percent in October.
A group of 24 states joined in a federal lawsuit filed in Texas alleging that Obama overstepped his constitutional powers in a way that will only worsen the humanitarian problems along the southern U.S. border. And Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is in federal court in Washington, contending that the policy is a magnet for more illegal entries into the country that will impose a burden on law enforcement.
In a court filing late Monday, the Justice Department argued for dismissal of Arpaio’s case, saying he has failed to substantiate his claims.
Congressional Republicans say that Obama’s actions created an even tougher climate for immigration legislation, but many Democrats and advocates contend that Republicans were terminally stalled on the issue anyway. Some Republicans question whether immigration legislation really is a political imperative for the GOP. “It’s really mixed out there — some people want a big immigration bill, others don’t,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a supporter of reform efforts.
And two years after a “Gang of Eight” senators launched an immigration overhaul drive on Capitol Hill, some of those same players say they have no plans to initiate another such effort.
“I’m not going to start it in the Senate,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “We’ve tried that.”
Associated Press News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson and writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama’s push to cover America’s uninsured faces another big test Monday.
This time, it’s not only how the website functions, but how well the program itself works for millions who are starting to count on it.
Midnight Monday, Pacific time is the deadline for new customers to pick a health plan that will take effect Jan. 1, and for current enrollees to make changes that could reduce premium increases ahead of the new year.
HealthCare.gov and state insurance websites are preparing for heavy online traffic before the deadline, which gives consumers in the East three hours into Tuesday to enroll.
Wait times at the federal call center started creeping up around the middle of last week, mainly due to a surge of current customers with questions about their coverage for next year. Many will face higher premiums, although they could ease the hit by shopping online for a better deal. Counselors reported hold times of 20 minutes or longer for the telephone help line.
About 6.7 million people now have coverage through Obama’s signature law, which offers subsidized private insurance. The administration wants to increase that to 9.1 million in 2015. To do that, the program will have to keep most of its current enrollees while signing up more than 2 million new paying customers.
People no longer can be turned down because of health problems, but picking insurance still is daunting for many consumers. They also have to navigate the process of applying for or updating federal subsidies, which can be complex for certain people, including immigrants. Many returning customers are contending with premium increases generally in the mid-to-high single digits, but much more in some cases.
Consumers “understand it’s complicated but they appreciate the ability to get health insurance,” said Elizabeth Colvin of Foundation Communities, an Austin, Texas, nonprofit that is helping sign up low-income residents. “People who haven’t gone through the process don’t understand how complicated it is.”
Last year’s open enrollment season turned into a race to salvage the reputation of the White House by fixing numerous technical bugs that crippled HealthCare.gov from its first day. With the website now working fairly well, sign-up season this year is a test of whether the program itself is practical for the people it is intended to serve.
New wrinkles have kept popping up, even with seemingly simple features of the Affordable Care Act.
For example, most current customers who do nothing will be automatically renewed Jan. 1 in the plan they now are in. At this point, it looks like that is what a majority intends to do.
While that may sound straightforward, it’s not.
By staying in their current plans, people can get locked into a premium increase and miss out on lower-priced plans for 2015. Not only that, they also will keep their 2014 subsidies, which may be less than what they legally would be entitled to for next year.
Doing nothing appears to be a particularly bad idea for people who turned 21 this year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that advocates for low-income people.
Researchers at the center estimate that 21-year-olds will see a 58 percent increase in the sticker price for their premiums just because they’re a year older. An age-adjustment factor used to compute premiums jumps substantially when a person turns 21. A 20-year-old whose premium was $130 per month in 2014 will see the premium climb to $205 a month in 2015, solely because of that year’s difference.
Tax-credit subsidies can cancel out much or even all of the impact. But if consumers default to automatic renewal, their tax credits will not be updated and they will get the same subsidy as this year.
“Even in the best possible scenario of how many people we can expect to come in, we will still see a substantial number of people defaulting,” said Judy Solomon, a health care policy expert at the center. She worries that some young adults may get discouraged and drop out.
Reviews of HealthCare.gov and state health insurance exchanges are mixed.
An Associated Press-GfK poll this month found that 11 percent of Americans said they or someone else in their household tried to sign up since open enrollment began Nov. 15. Overall, 9 percent said the insurance markets are working extremely well or very well. Twenty-six percent said the exchanges are working somewhat well, and 39 percent said they were not working well. The remaining 24 percent said they didn’t know enough to rate performance.
So far it has been a frustrating experience for Marie Bagot, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She and her husband are in their 60s, but not yet old enough for Medicare. The husband, who works as a chef, will turn 65 around the middle of next year and qualify for Medicare. Bagot said they were happy with their insurance this year under Obama’s law.
“As you get older, you worry about your health,” she said. “I was very pleased with the price we got.”
But Bagot said she received a notice from her insurer that her current plan will not be available next year in her community. The closest alternative would involve a premium increase of more than $350 a month, even with their tax credit subsidy. After days of trying to find a comparable plan through the federal call center and after visiting a counselor, Bagot said she opted to keep their current coverage, while hoping costs go down after her husband joins Medicare.
“I cannot afford it, but I’m going to try to,” she said.
Monday is not the last chance for consumers like Bagot. Open enrollment doesn’t end until Feb. 15.
Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans may not agree on much lately, but one opinion is nearly universal: There’s almost no chance that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and the Republican Congress can work together to solve the country’s problems.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds just 13 percent of Americans are confident the leaders, separated by nearly 2 miles of Pennsylvania Avenue, can work together, while 86 percent have no such faith. That’s far more than the 58 percent who felt that way just after the 2010 midterm elections in which the tea party movement rose to prominence.
The doubts cross party lines: Fewer than 1 in 5 Democrats or independents have confidence the two sides can cooperate. Republicans are even more pessimistic, with just 1 in 10 confident Obama and Congress can work together.
Those who lack confidence spread the blame around: 41 percent say neither side would do enough to work together, 35 percent place more blame on the Republicans, 22 percent on the president.
Neither side holds much hope things are going to get better, either. Just 16 percent think the president is likely to restore public trust in government in the next two years, while 20 percent feel congressional Republicans will.
Robert Cole, 65, says both Democrats and Republicans deserve blame for Washington’s stalemate: “If you want to place the blame, it rests on the American voter.”
“They’re not doing their jobs, and we as the electorate are stupid in sending the same people back and expecting things to change,” said Cole, a retiree who lives in Ocala, Florida.
But not everyone sees cooperation as a positive.
“In my view, the Republicans were doing what they needed to do to block a harmful agenda coming from the executive branch,” said Ron Tykoski, 42, a paleontologist from Nevada, Texas.
What does the public think they’ll be able to do?
A majority say Obama is likely to prevent Congress from repealing the health care law passed in 2010, while nearly half say the GOP is likely to block Obama’s executive order on immigration. Another 42 percent think the GOP will block or roll back Obama’s environmental regulations. Fewer think either side will be able to enact the policies on their agenda.
Tamara Watson, 35, a high school teacher in West Columbia, South Carolina, said immigration and health care are the two issues where both sides do need to work together. She sees Republicans as the bigger roadblock.
“They have fought him his entire term and a half now, and there’s so many of them now,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult for (Obama) to work with them when there are so many of them versus so few of his party.”
Political gridlock itself ranks pretty low on the issue scale, 47 percent call it extremely or very important compared with 83 percent who say the economy is important, 76 percent who consider health care a key issue and 64 percent who say unemployment is important.
But the issue prompts Obama’s most negative ratings overall: 66 percent disapprove of his handling of gridlock and among Democrats, 47 percent disapprove.
Approval ratings for the president and Congress are about the same as before the election, with 41 percent approval for Obama and 15 percent Congress. In general, however, the public expresses greater frustration with politics now than they did four years ago.
Looking back on last month’s elections, 52 percent say they’re disappointed with the results while 50 percent say they’re frustrated. Both figures are up significantly since 2010. About a quarter, 27 percent, say they’re angry, compared with 16 percent in 2010.
Just 37 percent say they’re hopeful when they think about the results of the elections, well below the 65 percent saying so after the 2010 elections, when the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, or the 74 percent who felt so when Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. Only 1 in 5 Americans under age 30 describe themselves as hopeful, fewer than any other age group.
More Americans say they trust neither party to handle managing the federal government than said they trust either side over the other. Nearly a third of both Democrats and Republicans say they trust neither party to handle managing the federal government, along with almost 6 in 10 independents.
But Cole says this hasn’t turned him away from politics.
“As aggravating as it is, I’m still paying attention just to see if I can find somebody out there who is going to do more than talk about cooperating and find a way forward,” he said.
The AP-GfK Poll of 1,010 adults was conducted online Dec. 4-8, using a sample drawn from GfK’s probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
WASHINGTON (AP) — With a bright look to its rebuilt website, version 2.0 of President Barack Obama’s health insurance overhaul represents another chance to win over a skeptical public.
But more than possible computer woes lurk as HealthCare.gov’s second open enrollment season begins Nov. 15.
The risks include an unproven system for those renewing coverage and a tax hit that could sting millions of people. Those tax issues are the result of complications between the health care law and income taxes, and they will emerge during next year’s filing season.
“Things will not be perfect,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, trying to set expectations. “We are aiming for a strong consumer experience, and it will be better.”
The Obama administration cannot afford to repeat last year’s online meltdown. Congress will be entirely in Republican hands in 2015, and GOP lawmakers will be itching to build the case for repeal. The Supreme Court’s decision Friday to hear another challenge to the law is also casting a shadow.
The health insurance exchanges offer taxpayer-subsidized private coverage to people who do not have access on the job. HealthCare.gov will serve 37 states, while the rest run their own markets.
This new sign-up period will be the first time that renewal has been tried for current customers, and also overlaps with the first tax-filing season that the law’s requirements are in effect.
On the plus side, premium increases are expected to be modest in many, though not all, states. New insurers have come into the market, promoting competition, and regulators now take a close look at anything above a 10 percent increase.
The online application for most new customers is down to 16 screens from 76. Website security is better, thanks to aggressive monitoring. The government and insurers have added call center staff.
The administration had said last week that consumers would be able to get an early peek at 2015 plans and premiums this weekend. It looked like that early goal was slipping. Officials said Sunday that window shopping would be available overnight, without giving a specific time.
This year, the bar will be higher.
The Congressional Budget Office has projected that 13 million people will be covered through federal and state insurance markets in 2015. That means retaining most of the 7 million people now covered and adding 6 million more. Many are skeptics who sat out last year’s campaign.
One potential motivator: The law’s tax penalty for remaining uninsured is rising, to a minimum of $325 for 2015.
“We have some momentum built up,” said Rachel Klein, enrollment strategist for Families USA, an advocacy group supporting the law. “We can build on that, but it is a somewhat higher bar to find all the people we need to help, because by definition, they are harder to reach.”
An Associated Press-GfK poll found that 31 percent of those questioned expect the health insurance exchanges to work better, while 49 percent think they will work about the same. Also, 18 percent expect version 2.0 to be worse.
Some of the potential enrollment pitfalls:
—For those already signed up, coverage will renew automatically if you do nothing. Sounds good, but maybe not. You could miss out on lower premium options and get stuck with an outdated and possibly incorrect subsidy. Shop around, but don’t dally. You have until Dec. 15 to update your income information or change plans if you want to have everything in place by Jan. 1.
—New customers, be advised: The Nov. 15-Feb. 15 open enrollment is half as long as last time, and it overlaps with the holidays. Try to get familiar with some of the basic health insurance trade-offs. A low-premium silver or bronze plan may not make sense if you’ll wind up with high out-of-pocket costs for the deductible and copayments. In that case, you might be better off going for the gold.
Some of the tax complications lurking:
—Most current customers are getting a tax credit to help with premiums. Those subsidies are tied to income, so you’ll have to file new forms with your 2014 taxes to prove you got the right amount. Too much subsidy and your tax refund will get dinged. Too little, and the government owes you. It’s bound to cause anxiety because many people depend on their tax refunds to pay bills.
—If you remained uninsured in 2014, you risk a penalty that will be deducted from your tax refund. It starts at $95 for those uninsured all year. Millions of people may qualify for penalty waivers, but getting exemptions could be an ordeal. Some appear simple, but for others you’ll have to mail in an application and supporting documents.
Melissa Dresler of Lexington, Kentucky, said she’s lucky that she got covered, but she also learned some lessons that should make her a better shopper this year. The climate change researcher unexpectedly found herself in need of a delicate operation. She woke up one day and something was wrong with her right eye. It turned out to be a detached retina.
Her surgery cost well into five figures, and she paid about $1,000. The problem came when she had to go out-of-network because of a complication. To keep premiums in check, many plans restrict a patient’s choice. The follow-up corrective surgery cost her about $6,000.
“I may gripe once in a while, but I am so happy with Obamacare,” said Dresler. “I feel so lucky I was covered.”
She adds: “If I had known that I was going to have a major emergency then I would have certainly invested more in a better plan.”