Sen. David Vitter has often railed against the "Washington exemption" to Obamacare.

Sen. David Vitter has often railed against the "Washington exemption" to Obamacare. Jonathan Bachman/AP

Senator Blocks OPM Nominee Over Hill Staff 'Obamacare Exemption'

Louisiana Republican wants an explanation for why congressional aides can get employer subsidies to buy health insurance.

President Obama's unilateral action on immigration isn't to blame for the latest GOP move to block one of his nominees. This time, it's health care.

On Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter announced he would hold the nomination of retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Earl Gay to serve as the deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management. Gay currently serves as senior adviser to the director of OPM, the typically noncontroversial agency that manages federal job-announcement postings, conducts background checks on prospective employees, manages pension benefits, and more.

And why? Because of what the Louisiana Republican calls the "Washington Exemption from Obamacare," which Vitter has often railed against.

Essentially, the Affordable Care Act requires lawmakers and some congressional staff to receive their health insurance on the Washington, D.C., health exchange, called D.C. Health Link. But some staff can be considered "unofficial." And, voilà, that loophole has allowed staff to get their health insurance the old way, through the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, where they are allocated a stipend to pay for health insurance.

But, here's the catch that Vitter calls the "Washington Exemption": OPM decided that staffers, those designated as "official staff," would sign up through the D.C. small-business health marketplace. This means their employers are allowed to make contributions to their health plan (though there's a limit to how much can be given).

"OPM created the Washington Exemption from Obamacare, and they still haven't answered questions about how and why," Vitter said in a statement. "Once they answer some specific questions about why they think Congress is entitled to a special exemption from Obamacare, I'll release the hold."

Vitter has continued to push for a change. In December, he proposed a nonbinding party rule to Senate Republicans, urging them to put their personal, committee, and leadership staff on D.C.'s health exchange. It passed unanimously by voice vote. Last week, he launched an investigation into why Congress is classified as a small business for health insurance purposes. Proponents of this classification argue that each office and committee has its own finite budget and staff.

But other Senate Republicans have already signed off on Gay's nomination, as it passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now tasked with scuttling objections to Obama's nominees from his party—and it's his problem to solve, said Adam Jentleson, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman.

"Nothing's changed," Jentleson said. "It's just more of the same Republican obstruction."