New House rules to allow Democrats to defend Obamacare

House Democrats moved quickly to defend the Affordable Care Act once they retook control of the chamber Thursday.

As part of its rules package for the 116th Congress, the party is granting itself authorization to intervene in the lawsuit that threatens to bring down the landmark health care law. It directs the House’s Office of General Counsel to represent lawmakers in any litigation involving the act and authorizes hiring of outside counsel.

The House late Thursday voted in the rules package, which the majority party — now the Democrats — adopts at the start of a new Congress.

The newly empowered Democratic leadership also scheduled a vote for next Wednesday on a standalone resolution affirming the House’s authorization to intervene in the lawsuit. This would put Republicans on the record voting specifically for or against defending Obamacare and its protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Supporting the Affordable Care Act, including its popular provisions that protect those with less-than-perfect health histories, helped Democrats retake the House in the midterm elections in November. Since then, the party’s leaders have repeatedly said they will swiftly work to uphold the law.

A federal judge in Texas last month ruled that the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, is unconstitutional because Congress eliminated the individual mandate penalty by reducing it to $0, starting this year. This rendered the mandate itself unconstitutional and the rest of the law therefore cannot stand. Earlier this week, District Judge Reed O’Connor issued an order saying that the act can remain in effect pending appeal.

The Trump administration is not defending Obamacare, prompting a coalition of Democratic states to step in. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is leading the coalition, plans to appeal O’Connor’s ruling.

The move to intervene, however, is largely symbolic. Some Affordable Care Act supporters say that Democratic lawmakers would be better off passing legislation to address the lawsuit.

For instance, Congress could nullify the basis of the judge’s decision by raising the penalty amount or declaring the individual mandate severable from the rest of the law, University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley and Richard Primus argued in The Atlantic last month.

This story has been updated to include additional developments.