In the past year, President Obama has unilaterally suspended various parts of the Affordable Care Act whenever it's been politically convenient to do so.
In July, the administration announced a one-year delay of the employer mandate, Obamacare's tax of up to $3,000 per employee on large employers that don't provide Obamacare-compliant health insurance plans to their employees. In November, the president responded to outrage over insurance cancellations by giving insurers and states the option to continue selling plans that Obamacare had made illegal.
The latest delay came on the evening of December 20, shortly after the U.S. Senate held its final vote of 2013, when Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared in a letter that Americans who had their insurance plans canceled by Obamacare would not be subjected to law's individual mandate in 2014.
All of the delays have led critics of the law to ask some obvious questions: If the Obama administration can suspend the individual mandate for people who had their plans canceled, couldn't the next president suspend the mandate for everyone? Better yet, couldn't the next president suspend the entire law?
These are simple questions, but leading Democrats don't have any answers.
"I've seen the administration's argument as to why they have the authority to make those changes, and I don't challenge that," Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, told THE WEEKLY STANDARD on Tuesday in the Capitol building. But the senator pleaded ignorance when asked if the president could suspend the rest of the law:
THE WEEKLY STANDARD: How do you determine if the president couldn't do something--that it does exceed his authority? Are there any parts of the law that the president doesn't have the authority to delay or suspend?
KAINE: I don't know. I'm not the scholar on that.
Scholarly expertise was of no help to Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former state attorney general, who was similarly unable to answer the question:
TWS: Are there any delays the president wouldn't have the authority to make? I mean, could the president potentially suspend the entire law if he wanted to?
BLUMENTHAL: I can't answer a hypothetical.
TWS: So you can't say if there are any parts of the law he couldn't delay?
BLUMENTHAL: I can't answer a hypothetical about any--
The Connecticut senator's voice trailed off as the doors closed on the senators-only elevator.
Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that he doesn't "know of any legal impediment" preventing the executive branch from delaying the employer or individual mandates.
"Either you want to make it work or you want to get rid of it," Casey said. "If you want to make it work you've got to put in place measures or strategies that will ensure that it does work over time. And sometimes that means going forward, and sometimes that means waiting for a more optimal time for something to move forward."
But couldn't a future president suspend the entire law? "I don't want to speculate what a future president might do," Casey replied.
If a Republican wins the presidency in 2016, Democrats won't need to waste much time speculating about what he will try to do to Obamacare. But they will need to come up with some arguments about why it's illegal.