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Health care plan ‘architect’ unwittingly provides ammo for GOP

WASHINGTON » Three years ago, as President Barack Obama fought for re-election, his team was more than happy to have Jonathan Gruber, a well-known Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, mouthing off.

Gruber, a health care expert who helped develop Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and later was a consultant for Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was no stranger to the pundit circuit, and repeatedly called attention to the similarities between the two plans — a politically helpful fact for the Obama 2012 campaign.

"They’re the same bill," Gruber declared once, adding an expletive before the word "bill."

But now, Gruber’s bluntness is clearly less appreciated by those in the West Wing, thanks to the emergence of a series of videos that show Gruber calling the American public "stupid" and suggesting that the president’s health care law passed by fooling Americans about how it works.

"This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes," Gruber said in October 2013, referring to the Congressional Budget Office. "Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass."

The White House was quick to reject Gruber’s comments. Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said he disagreed "vigorously with that assessment," and insisted that the "process associated with the writing and passing and implementing of the Affordable Care Act has been extraordinarily transparent.

Gruber, an unabashed supporter of the Affordable Care Act, has expressed regret about his comments, telling MSNBC that he was "speaking off the cuff" and that he "spoke inappropriately" at the academic conference where the video was taken. In an email Friday, Gruber declined to comment further.

But the apology has done little to stave off a furious, new Republican assault on the president’s health care law, using Gruber’swords as ammunition.

Republican lawmakers, Tea Party activists and conservative pundits have declared Gruber to be their new truth-teller, using the videos as contemporaneous evidence that their own critiques of the health care law were supported, even by the most ardent backers of the president’s efforts.

A Twitter post Friday from Speaker John A. Boehner said simply: "Arrogance + deception = #Obamacare." A news release from the Tea Party Express said that "Gruber oozes the elitist arrogance of the Obama administration that thinks their ‘superior’ Ivy League backgrounds will allow them to pull the wool over our eyes."

And Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Friday on Twitter that "Jonathan Gruber said what most Americans recognize: that #Obamacare was sold on a lie." The post linked to a news article with the headline: "ObamaCare Architect Thinks You’re Stupid."

White House officials rejected the idea that Gruber was the "architect" of the Affordable Care Act. They noted he was never employed by the White House or any federal agency, though he was paid close to $400,000 as a consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services during 2009 and 2010.

But Gruber had become a high-profile booster of the president’s signature domestic achievement and participated in its development. During the contentious debate in Congress, top Democrats frequently cited his analysis of the law’s impacts. An invitation to a different October 2013 panel discussion listed him as: "a key architect of the ACA, Dr. Jonathan Gruber."

Gruber also made headlines in July when a video surfaced that showed him agreeing that the health care law’s tax subsidies were supposed to go only to states that set up their own health exchanges. Thirty-seven states chose not to. That put Gruberon the opposite side of the White House in a lawsuit that is heading to the Supreme Court.

He said at the time that he "made a mistake in some 2012 speeches," and reaffirmed his belief that the law’s tax subsidies are proper and constitutional. But Republicans have decided to believe what they see on the videos.

"The epic search of the Greek philosopher Diogenes for an honest man is finally over," Rich Lowry wrote in National Review on Friday. "His name is Jonathan Gruber."

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