Sen. Pat Roberts discusses politics and policy with residents of the 1st Congressional District over the phone.
In a "tele-town hall" — equal parts constituent service, bully pulpit and dispatch from the capital — residents of the "Big First" congressional district had a "chat with Pat," that is, Sen. Pat Roberts, early Tuesday evening.
Sounding like a veteran radio host despite a cough, Roberts started the call saying, "If we can put the campaign or politics on the back burner, we should. We can always watch TV for that," before previewing a list of issues that will be central to the midterm elections in November.
Among the topics covered, Roberts hinted at "hardship exemptions" to individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, that would essentially delay the "stick" of penalties for individuals who do not have a health care insurance policy by March 31.
Soon after, the Wall Street Journal broke news of the issue in an unsigned opinion piece, citing that the "secret mandate exemption" had been quietly enacted last week, though even "Our sources only noticed the change this week," the report said — likely code for researchers in the Republican Party or allied organizations.
Other conservative news and opinion outlets have quickly jumped to make hay of the issue and the department of Health and Human Services sought to downplay the revelation as a clarification of existing exemptions for those who were dis-enrolled from their health care plans that did not meet the federal criteria.
Roberts office is continuing to research the rules, said Roberts' spokesperson Sarah Little, but at this point it seems the list of exemptions is broad enough that almost anyone could apply.
Included in the list "several pages long" were financial-based hardship criteria that included residents of states like Kansas that did not set up a state-wide insurance exchange or refused federal dollars for the expansion of Medicaid, Little said.
"I think that's going to explode as other people start to look at that," Little said.
Expect more on this issue as Americans will face penalties of 1 percent of their incomes or $95, whichever is greater, if they do not have a health care plan by March 31 or have received exemptions.
In the telephone call, Roberts said it was unfair for businesses to receive delays individuals would not receive. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House committee Wednesday that a full-on delay to the individual mandate, a cornerstone of the law's funding, would not be coming.
"Where's your delay?" Roberts asked the call listeners. "Businesses get them, but not individuals."
"The president can't pick and choose."
Ultimately, Roberts told the listeners, Democratic leaders in the House, Senate and White House want to turn the health care law into "national health care" similar to the United Kingdom and Canada.
Roberts also took the opportunity to criticize the IRS for giving extra scrutiny to 501(c)(4) groups, non-profit social welfare organizations, with names with connections to conservative causes.
"The IRS suppressed opposition to the current administration," Roberts said, and "incredibly, the IRS continues to target groups with politics it doesn't like."
"What we are seeing is a deliberate effort to infringe on peoples' free speech."
Roberts has signed on to legislation that would delay action by the IRS for a year so congressional investigations can be completed.
Under the tax code, social welfare groups cannot be primarily engaged in political causes. Unlike so-called Super PACs or official campaign organizations, 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to reveal a list of their donors and have been used to channel anonymous funding into political action committees.
This "dark money" has become a major contributor of campaign dollars used by both parties.
Little said Roberts supports oversight by the Federal Election Commission rather than the IRS, due to their subject matter expertise and the discretionary nature of the rules followed by the IRS.
Roberts also criticized the administration for proposing cuts to the department of defense, especially in light of the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama should not focus on a "Russian reset," a phrase Americans will hear often as it is connected to Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, but a "national security reset."
"We need to adjust mandatory spending programs before we cut the military to the bone," Roberts said.
Roberts, and every other senator, passed a resolution calling for condemnation of Russia's invasion into Crimea, and called for the administration to place strong economic sanctions on Russia.
One called asked Roberts what it would take to impeach Obama. Roberts deftly dodged the questions, saying he shared the caller's concerns, but didn't think it was a realistic course of action. Instead, Roberts said, he would continue to oppose the president's policies through use of the bully pulpit and the lawsuit to defend the Constitution.
Roberts also reiterated opposition to proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules, saying the EPA was operating under an agenda and had declared "a war on fossil fuels."
Roberts also said he opposed the raising of the federal minimum wage, telling one concerned caller, a small business owner, that helping the working poor is important, but "the most important thing, how do you help the working folks that employ the working poor?"
One way to help the working poor would be to repeal the part of the health care law that requires employers to provide insurance for employees that work over 30 hours, Roberts said.