Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would support repealing the Affordable Care Act's individual insurance mandate, giving a potential boost to the Republican effort to pass a massive tax cut package next week.
"I believe that the federal government should not force anyone to buy something they do not wish to buy, in order to avoid being taxed," Murkowski wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Anchorage Daily News and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Senate Republicans' plan to rewrite the tax code includes a provision to repeal the individual mandate, a part of the 2010 health care law that requires almost all Americans to have some form of health insurance or pay a fine.
Murkowski was careful, however, to stop short of saying she would vote for the Senate GOP tax plan. She instead focused the entire op-ed on her views about the Affordable Care Act, emphasizing how Alaskans had paid $21 million in penalties under the law in 2014 and 2015 for failing to purchase health insurance. She wrote that "eliminating this tax would allow Alaskans to have greater control over their money and health care decisions."
The Alaska moderate is a key swing vote as Republican leaders attempt to assemble support for their tax plan. They need 50 votes to move the measure through the Senate, and they control 52 seats. The bill would likely fail in the Senate if three Republicans oppose it, as Democrats are expected to unanimously oppose the plan.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said last week he planned to oppose the bill because he felt tax cuts for certain businesses weren't generous enough, but he has recently signaled his opposition was softening.
By stating her support for repealing the individual mandate in a homestate newspaper, Murkowski could be paving the way to carefully articulate to Alaskans how she is moving closer to Republican leaders on the tax plan, which has become President Trump's top economic priority.
The House of Representatives has already passed a version of the tax cut plan, but in one of many critical differences from the Senate measure, the House legislation would not make changes to the health care law.
Senate Republicans included a repeal of the measure in their version, which was introduced earlier this month. The provision was added suddenly and some White House officials feared it could repel party moderates.
As recently as Sunday, White House officials were unsure whether the effort to repeal the individual mandate would remain in the Senate bill. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the White House would prefer that the tax bill repealed the individual mandate but they would support removing the language if it was politically necessary.
Murkowski was one of three Senators this summer who joined with Democrats to block a GOP effort to repeal the large parts of the Affordable Care Act.
She wrote in her op-ed that the Affordable Care Act has helped some people in Alaska by making it easier to purchase insurance, expanding access to mental health and substance abuse programs, and making it harder for insurers to deny coverage. But she said other parts of the 2010 law went too far and should be changed, particularly the individual mandate.
"It is important to emphasize that eliminating this tax penalty does not take care away from anyone. Instead, it provides important relief to those who have been penalized for choosing not to buy unaffordable insurance."
Repealing the mandate would result in 13 million fewer people having health insurance and drive up insurance premiums for many Americans by roughly 10 percent, according to projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The mandate repeal would also save the government more than $300 billion over the next decade, according to CBO as fewer people buying insurance would mean the government would pay out less in subsidies.
Republicans plan to use that revenue to their proposed tax cuts, part of an effort to keep their bill in line with Senate procedures limiting how much the measure can add to the deficit but still pass with only a simple majority.
Trump and Republican leaders in Congress are aiming to pass legislation by year's end that would simplify the code and deliver $1.5 trillion in tax cuts over a decade. Both the House and Senate bills deliver the majority of the cuts to corporations and wealthy Americans, while also offering temporary tax cuts for the middle class and working class that Republicans hope would be extended in at a later date.
Murkwoski's op-ed comes at a crucial time. Senate Republicans passed their version of the tax bill through the Senate Finance Committee last week, and they hope to hold a vote on it on the Senate floor next week.