By Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers will not take up a bipartisan plan to stabilize Obamacare insurance markets or try again to repeal and replace the law this year, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said on Wednesday, signaling his party was shelving the matter until the 2018 U.S. congressional election year.
President Donald Trump promised as a candidate last year to dismantle Obamacare. While the House passed such a bill last May, the Senate tried but failed to do so in July and September thanks to deep intra-party divisions and fears that millions of Americans would lose their healthcare coverage.
"I think that is something we should do next year," Ryan said in an interview with Reuters when asked about prospects of the House passing a bipartisan bill that would reinstate federal subsidies to private insurers to help lower-income people buy medical coverage through the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare.
Asked whether the seven-year Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was now dead, Ryan responded, "No." But he added, "I can't imagine we can do that this year."
Congress has a packed calendar between now and the end of 2017. It includes a major tax cut package that President Donald Trump wants lawmakers to pass by the end of the year as well as legislation to avert a potential government shutdown looming in December.
Trump has been frustrated by the inability of a Congress led by his own party to pass the bill, and has taken steps that bypass lawmakers to chip away at the law. Trump this month cut off billions of dollars in Obamacare subsidies to insurers, known as cost-sharing reduction payments, saying they are unlawful and enrich insurance companies.
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Patty Murray last week unveiled a bipartisan bill to maintain those subsidies for two years and give states some added flexibility for administering health insurance while also maintaining many of Obamacare's patient protections. The plan drew bipartisan support in the Senate, but Trump came out against it after initially backing it.
The subsidies are a critical element of Obamacare. Insurers say they do not profit from the subsidies, but pass them on directly to consumers to reduce deductibles, co-payments and other out-of-pocket medical expenses for low-income people.
Ryan said he favored a more conservative short-term Obamacare fix offered by leading Republicans in the House and Senate. It includes provisions to suspend requirements for individuals and employers to obtain health coverage under Obamacare. Democrats are likely to balk over concerns that the measure could undermine the viability of Obamacare's subsidized insurance market for individuals.
Republicans call Obamacare a government intrusion in the U.S. healthcare system while Democrats note that the 2010 law brought insurance to 20 million Americans.
Congressional elections are set for November 2018, with party primaries earlier in the year.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)