With their Obamacare repeal plan inches from failure, Senate Republicans are white knuckling their way into the weekend. And rather than panicking over passing a bill, GOP leaders are simply trying to find the votes to begin debate on it next week.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no margin for error. Two Republicans are already on record opposed to the key procedural motion, and a third would defeat it. McConnell and his allies are now urging GOP senators to at least let the bill get to the floor rather than preemptively killing the party’s seven-year campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare.
“We’ve worked a long time on it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “We’ve got a responsibility to address [problems with Obamacare] and if people have better ideas, they’ll have a virtually unlimited opportunity next week on the floor to make amendments to the bill and try to improve it.”
Republicans view a successful vote on starting debate — expected to be held as soon as Tuesday — as a victory in its own right, even if the bill dies down the road. Their strategy is to go one vote, one day at a time. And each day that a third senator, or pack of senators, doesn’t oppose the bill, it’s one day closer to an overall victory. Leadership also may be hoping that once the bill gets to the floor and faces a final vote, GOP senators will be unable to resist the pressure to repeal Obamacare.
One Republican compared the strategy to New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s infamous “On to Cincinnati” press conference, in which the coach ignored criticisms of the team’s 2-2 start by repeatedly focusing on the next game in Cincinnati. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl.
The White House is also working to get waffling senators on board with repealing Obamacare, which would give President Donald Trump his most significant legislative victory ahead of the August recess.
Seema Verma, who runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs and has emerged as a key administration resource for the Senate effort, has been walking senators through the details of how a state stability fund in the bill — now with $182 billion — can help states drive down premiums. She is also attending the National Governors Association conference in Providence, R.I., this weekend and is expected to pitch governors on the amount of flexibility HHS can give them.
Vice President Mike Pence is also at the NGA meeting and is scheduled to meet privately with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, both of whom have raised significant concerns about Medicaid funding cuts in the bill and have sway with their GOP senators.
One new problem has also emerged since the latest version of the bill was released Thursday: It is unclear whether only states that accept an amendment from Ted Cruz to allow insurance companies to sell policies that don’t comply with key Obamacare standards would get access to $70 billion in new funding to drive down premiums. The amendment may have to be rewritten, further delaying the process, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Republicans say McConnell will force a vote to start debate even if he knows it would be unsuccessful, which would force Republicans to decide which might be worse: Democratic attack ads for repealing Obamacare or anger from the conservative base and President Donald Trump if they abandon the cause.
McConnell canceled a scheduled vote on the bill last month when it became clear the votes weren’t there. But this time, Republicans say, McConnell wants to get people on the record and bring some finality to the Obamacare debate that has hung up Senate action for nearly two months.
“There will be a vote — I’m pretty confident of that,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “Everybody has to be responsible for the result of not doing something [on Obamacare].”
Shortly after the modified bill was released Thursday, GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky reiterated their opposition. Republicans assume Collins and Paul are never going to get to a yes, leaving leaders with no option but to get every other member of the GOP conference on board.
There were some signs of progress for leadership Thursday: the modifications won the support of Cruz — who said he would vote to allow debate to start, assuming his amendment remains in the bill — and moved Sen. Dean Heller from a hard no to the undecided column. About a half dozen other senators said they were undecided on Thursday.
“It’s much better from the standpoint of those who want to get to yes,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a close McConnell ally. “Much progress has been made. I think we can [open debate]. We’ve got to bring the bill up. There’s a lot of movement toward yes.”
GOP leaders are also noting that under the special procedural tool Republicans are using to repeal Obamacare without threat of a Democratic filibuster, any senator can offer an unlimited number of amendments to the bill.
On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office is expected to release a score of the Senate bill, providing fresh fodder for wavering senators to join the bill or jump off.
The CBO is expected to score the bill without the Cruz amendment, and release an analysis of the amendment later. That could force the Senate to vote to start debate without an analysis of the whole bill, another political quandary for already jittery senators.
“I want to see the CBO score and see what happens,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who declined to say which way she was leaning. “We’re trying to get to the Medicaid issue more deeply, so I need to get into that in more detail. And there’s still the whole Cruz amendment.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that the chamber would potentially use information from the Trump administration to evaluate some of the bill if it takes CBO too long, particularly the Cruz amendment. That could provide fresh ammunition to Democrats’ argument that Republicans are bypassing long-standing Senate norms to muscle through their repeal bill.
“His amendment probably will take the Congressional Budget Office a while to score. We’ll probably get feedback from HHS,” Thune said. “We’ll see what they come back with.”
Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.