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Republicans press White House to delay key Obamacare mandate

A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Ham
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Ham

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans pressed President Barack Obama on Tuesday to delay a requirement under his healthcare law that Americans obtain insurance next year after the administration gave employers a one-year reprieve from having to provide it to staff.

The U.S. Treasury and White House announced last week that businesses would not be required to offer health coverage, or pay a fine, in 2014 because the administration had yet to issue final regulations in time for employers to comply.

The move sparked a new wave of Republican efforts to discredit Obama's healthcare reform law and raised questions over whether the effort will be launched as planned.

In a letter on Tuesday signed by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and 10 other leading House Republicans, they asked Obama for a detailed explanation of the delay of the "employer mandate," asking for a reply from the president by August 1.

"Please ... provide to Congress your justification for only delaying the employer mandate at this time and not the new mandate on individuals and families," they wrote. "We agree with you that the burden was overwhelming for employers, but we also believe American families need the same relief."

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the individual mandate would go forward because Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provides financial assistance to help lower-income people pay for insurance while exempting those who cannot afford coverage.

"Next year, millions of Americans will get the help they need to purchase quality health insurance they currently cannot afford," he said.

That financial assistance, coming in the form of refundable tax credits, will continue to be available to individuals in 2014, the Internal Revenue Service said on Tuesday in a three-page ruling, which confirmed the administration's reprieve.

Businesses, spared from penalties for not reporting employee healthcare information to the IRS next year, are encouraged to comply voluntarily, the agency said. The agency will publish details on how to report that information later this summer.

Carney also criticized Republicans for failing to produce their own alternative to "Obamacare", instead voting 37 times to repeal or defund the president's law. Most of those measures died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Carney said the Republicans would have denied benefits to the elderly, the sick and others.

The individual mandate is a lynchpin of Obamacare plan's to extend healthcare coverage to millions of uninsured Americans by offering subsidized insurance through new online marketplaces in all 50 states. It represents the government's only lever for compelling enrollment among younger adults whose participation is needed to help curb insurance costs.

But Republicans could have a hard time portraying the individual mandate as an onerous burden for voters in next year's mid-term congressional election. The penalty for not complying is only $95 or 1 percent of taxable household income in 2014, and analysts say consumers who violate the mandate would not have to pay until 2015.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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