Trump administration seeks pause in Obamacare court case because of shutdown

Maureen Groppe and Brad Heath

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration wants to put on hold Democrats' attempt to defend Obamacare until the partial government shutdown ends.

In a filing Wednesday, the Justice Department said it wants to challenge House Democrats' attempt to get involved in the litigation over the Affordable Care Act. But lawyers can't meet the deadline to do so because of the federal funding impasse. 

Instead, the department asked the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to pause the case.

"The Department of Justice does not know when funding will be restored by Congress," attorney Martin Totaro wrote. 

Trump has said the shutdown could last for "months or even years."

Democrats oppose the administration's move to halt their appeal. 

"First they refuse to fully defend the #ACA, now they’re trying to stay our ACA case," tweeted California Attorney General Xavier Bacerra who is leading the appeal.

The constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is being challenged by Republican attorneys general who argue it became invalid after the GOP-controlled Congress ended the law's penalty for people who don't have insurance.

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor in the Northern District of Texas agreed with the attorneys general last month. 

The law remains intact during the appeals process.

Democratic attorneys general have challenged the decision. House Democrats want to join that appeal. Objections to that move are supposed to be filed by Jan. 17, although the court Tuesday agreed to delay a briefing on the issue.

The Justice Department is requesting pauses not just on this issue, but in cases great and small throughout the country because the arm of the department that would normally show up in court to handle civil cases is out of money. Many judges have agreed to put cases on hold, and a few have insisted they go forward anyway.

For example, a judge paused a lawsuit brought by consumer advocates to stop the Trump administration from expanding the availability of short-term insurance plans with fewer coverage benefits. 

Litigation over whether to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census is going ahead in multiple districts.

But another judge Wednesday denied the government's request to pause a case involving a challenge to the appointment of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

In the Obamacare lawsuit, the Trump administration last year said it could not defend all of the law, including its popular protections for people with pre-existing conditions. That decision upended a longstanding legal and democratic norm that the executive branch will uphold existing laws.

House Democrats say they're getting involved on behalf of the millions of Americans with health issues who would have trouble getting insurance without the ACA's protections.

“If you support coverage for pre-existing conditions, then you will support this measure," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Wednesday during floor debate on whether to affirm the House's intervention.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., called intervention a waste of taxpayer dollars "to defend the indefensible."

If the district judge's ruling that the law is unconstitutional holds, the consequences would be far reaching. Besides eliminating protections for people with health conditions, such a ruling also would eliminate the law's expansion of Medicaid, enhanced drug benefit for seniors, bans on limits on insurance coverage, and the ability of young adults to stay on their parents' health plans, for example.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration seeks pause in Obamacare court case because of shutdown