Senate Republicans returned to Washington from a holiday recess with new and deepening disagreements about their health-care bill, with key Republicans differing Sunday not merely on how to amend the bill but also on whether a bill could pass at all.
“I would probably put that as 50/50,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in a “Fox News Sunday” interview.
“They will get a repeal and replace bill done,” said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, on the same show.
“My view is it’s probably going to be dead,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to push debate on the Better Care Reconciliation Act past the July Fourth recess was supposed to create space for dealmaking. “Legislation of this complexity almost always takes longer than anybody else would hope,” McConnell said at a June 27 news conference announcing the delay.
Instead, Republicans have run in different directions, proposing everything from a bipartisan deal to pay for insurance subsidies to a “repeal and delay” plan that would give them a few years before the Affordable Care Act would be fully gutted.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the author of a “Consumer Freedom Option” amendment designed to bring conservatives on board with the bill, spent part of Sunday insisting its critics were wrong. His amendment, also supported by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would allow insurers once again to offer cheaper plans that did not include the ACA’s essential health benefits.
“You have millions of people who are winners straight off: young people,” said Cruz in a “Face the Nation” interview. “Young people get hammered by Obamacare. Millions of young people suddenly have much lower premiums.”
Over the recess, however, key Republicans told local media that the amendment weakened protections that the party had promised to keep in place.
“I think that reopens an issue that I can’t support, that it would make it too difficult for people with preexisting conditions to get coverage,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Friday.
“There’s a real feeling that that’s subterfuge to get around preexisting conditions,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told Iowa Public Radio on Wednesday. “If it is, in fact, subterfuge, and it has the effect of annihilating the preexisting conditions requirement that we have in the existing bill, then obviously I would object to that.”
On ABC’s “This Week,” Cruz said that colleagues like Grassley were simply being misled. “What’s being repeated there is what [Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer said this week, which is that he called it a hoax,” he said. “Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama know a lot about health-care hoaxes.”
Schumer’s Democrats, meanwhile, have continued campaigning against the BCRA, saying that they will come to the table on health care only if Republicans give up on repeal. Throughout the recess, progressive activists, urged on by Democrats, protested and occupied the offices of Republican senators. On Friday, 16 protesters were arrested at the Columbus office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), joining dozens arrested in civil disobedience around the country.
“We aren’t going to allow a handful of Socialists, many of whom are from New York, to disrupt our ability to serve the needs of the Ohio constituents who contact us in need of vital services every day,” Portman’s office said in a statement.
Still, opponents of the health-care bill were far more visible than its supporters. The pro-Trump organization America First Policies floated then abandoned a plan to organize pro-BCRA rallies. While no prominent Senate Democrats appeared on Sunday’s talk shows, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spent the day rallying voters in West Virginia and Kentucky against the bill.
“Mitch McConnell is now trying to make side deals in order to win votes,” Sanders said in West Virginia. “I say to Senator Capito: Please do not fall for that old trick. This legislation is fatally flawed, and no small tweak here or there will undo the massive damage that it will cause to West Virginia and the entire country.”
Republicans, meanwhile, were openly talking about next steps if they could not amend the BCRA to win 50 votes. (Vice President Pence, who has signaled that the White House would sign off on any repeal bill, would cast the tiebreaking vote.) On “Fox News Sunday,” Cassidy suggested that his own bipartisan legislation to continue much of the ACA could get a second look, and that in the meantime, Republicans could work with Democrats to provide more subsidies for private plans.
“I do think we have to do something for market stabilization,” said Cassidy. “Otherwise, people who are paying premiums of $20,000, $30,000 and $40,000 will pay even that much more.”
Other Republicans, including McConnell, had warned that the BCRA’s failure would lead to a deal on subsidies. Yet conservatives, not ruling out the bill’s passage, spent the weekend talking up another backup plan. At a Republican fundraising dinner in Iowa, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) suggested that Republicans could repeal most of the ACA, forcing Democrats to the table to work on a replacement.
“If we can’t replace and repeal at the same time, then repeal the law and stay and work on replace full time,” said Sasse.
On Fox, Cassidy — one of the Senate’s few medical doctors — said the repeal-and-delay plan was a fantasy.
“It gives all the power to people who actually don’t believe in President Trump’s campaign pledges, who actually don’t want to continue to cover and care for preexisting conditions and to lower premiums,” said Cassidy. “It gives them the stronger hand. I think it’s wrong.”