The letters come days after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she's spoken with the NFL about potentially partnering to let people know the benefits of the Affordable Care Act ahead of the implementation of its major components. (She said there was no deal yet.) The Republican senators rattled off a slew of conservative arguments against the law, stressing polls that signal its unpopularity with the public.
The letter also suggests the Obama administration could be threatening the pro sports leagues to extract support for Obamacare:
We have long been concerned by the Obama Administration's record of using the threat of policy retaliation to solicit support for its policies or to silence its critics. Should the administration or its allies suggest that there will be any policy consequence for your decision not to participate in their outreach efforts, we urge you to resist any such pressure and to contact us immediately so that we may conduct appropriate oversight.
Republicans have been working feverishly to gum up implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And they've launched investigations into HHS and Sebelius for asking health industry groups to help promote the law. The senators warned the pro sports leagues that joining forces with the administration on an issue like this would be unprecedented.
"It is difficult for us to remember another occasion when major sports league took public sides in such a highly polarized public debate," McConnell and Cornyn wrote. "Yet given this administration's public request of your assistance in promoting this unpopular law, we felt it important to provide you with a fuller accounting of the facts before you made such a decision."
An HHS spokesperson declined to comment on the letters. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democratic aides point out that it's nothing new for political leaders to partner with private organizations on behalf of their constituents, citing as one example the 2007 partnership between Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the Boston Red Sox to promote Romneycare. McConnell and Cornyn argued in their letters that there were "key differences" between the two laws, observing that one was bipartisan and the other passed on a partisan vote.
Meanwhile, House Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise (R-LA) sent letters dated Thursday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA Commissioner David Stern seeking answers to three questions about what HHS has asked of them with regard to "promotion or implementation" of Obamacare. Scalise asked them to provide details.
"Given the harmful impact on millions of your fans and the people of southeast Louisiana, coupled with the Obama Administration's failure to meet the deadlines established to stand up their own law, I would caution you against being coerced into doing their dirty work for them," Scalise wrote. "Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or if you're uncomfortable responding in writing due to concerns about inappropriate or unwelcomed pressure from the Administration to cooperate with the implementation of [Obamacare]."
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told TPM the league has "no plans" to engage on Obamacare.
"We have responded to the letters we received from members of Congress to inform them we currently have no plans to engage in this area and have had no substantive contact with the administration about PPACA's implementation," McCarthy said in an email.
Asked about the suggestion in the letters that the administration may be threatening or pressuring the NFL, McCarthy responded, "Not correct. [Q]uite simply, the NFL, NBA and others were contacted by the administration. We made no commitments nor discussed any substantive details with the administration."
McConnell's spokesman Michael Brumas, asked to elaborate on the alleged threat, told TPM the senator "is not alleging the administration has threatened or pressured the sports leagues. See the next to the last graf of the letter which says 'Should the administration,' etc."