Senate Republicans, preparing new health bill, have no votes to spare

In Photo: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) with children with pre-existing conditions covered by the Affordable Care Act during a news conference about healthcare, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 12, 2017

WASHINGTON—The likely defection of two Senate Republicans has left their leaders no margin for error as they move on Thursday to unveil another version of their bill to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—without an assurance that they have the votes even to begin debate next week.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky flatly declared on Wednesday that he would not vote to take up the bill, which he said left too much of President Barack Obama’s health law in place. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has gone almost as far, saying that the bill cuts too much and that only major revisions could win her over.

The loss of a single additional senator would doom, at least for now, the Republicans’ effort to make good on their seven-year promise to uproot the health law. Unity is proving elusive. A lunch meeting of Republican senators on Wednesday ended with no clear consensus.

After scrapping plans for a vote last month, the Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, wants to try again next week. But senators have shown few signs of substantial progress toward the needed 50 votes.

Paul said on Wednesday that the revised version of McConnell’s bill was even worse than the original proposal. The new version, he said, provides more subsidies to insurance companies, and it keeps some of the taxes imposed by the ACA that the original bill would have repealed. “We promised the American voters that we would repeal Obamacare,” Paul added. “But when you’re keeping half the taxes, most of the regulations and creating a brand-new insurance bailout superfund, that to most people just doesn’t look like repeal.”

Collins has been a vocal critic of the bill for very different reasons.

“If the Medicaid cuts remain the same in the new version of the Senate bill, I will vote no on the motion to proceed,” she said last Wednesday, referring to the first step required to begin debate.

As Senate Republicans struggled for agreement on the contents of their repeal bill, President Donald J. Trump exerted pressure.

“I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand, waiting for our senators to give it to me,” he said in an interview with Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Trump offered a warning about what would happen if the Senate failed.

“Well, I don’t even want to talk about it because I think it would be very bad,” Trump added. “I will be very angry about it, and a lot of people will be very upset.”

Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate and can afford to lose only two of their members on votes to take up and pass the legislation, which is opposed by all the Democrats. Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tiebreaking vote if there is a 50-50 split.

“We just have differences that are legitimate about how the health-care legislation affects our states,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Republican-Ohio, who said before the Fourth of July recess that he did not support the repeal bill as it had been written. “Some people feel strongly one way, and others another way. But we’re trying to find middle ground.”

McConnell has been considering changes in his bill that would increase insurance subsidies for low-income people and preserve two taxes imposed on high-income people by the ACA.

The bill is still expected to make huge changes in Medicaid, putting caps on federal payments to states and rolling back the expansion of the program under the ACA that has extended insurance to millions of people.

One issue still up in the air is a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican-Texas, that would allow insurers to sell less comprehensive plans if they also offered at least one option that complied with federal standards. The stripped-down plans could omit certain types of coverage, such as maternity or mental-health care.

Groups representing patients and insurers flooded Senate offices last Wednesday with correspondence opposing the proposal. “The Cruz proposal would result in higher, not lower, premiums for people with serious and chronic conditions,” said a letter from 13 patient-advocacy groups, including the American Heart Association and the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society.

Scott P. Serota, the president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, said the Cruz plan “would create two sets of rules for health-insurance products” and could make coverage unaffordable for people with preexisting conditions.

Sen. Mike Rounds, Republican-South Dakota, suggested some kind of regulation to limit the difference in prices for compliant and noncompliant insurance plans, so premiums would not be “outrageously high” for people with preexisting conditions.

But, that was dismissed by Paul as a form of price controls. And Cruz pushed back against insurers’ criticism.

“Insurance companies have made billions of dollars under Obamacare,” Cruz said, “and their focus appears to be on maximizing their own subsidies at the expense of consumer choice”.

Democrats may not have the votes to stop the Republican push to repeal the ACA, but they do have Senate rules to help them. Under the procedure that Republicans are using to speed passage of the health-care bill, senators can object to a provision if it does not change federal spending or revenue or if the budgetary effects are “merely incidental” to some policy objective.

Republicans and Democrats are making formal presentations this week to the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who serves as a sort of referee, deciding whether specific provisions of the bill comply.



Image Credits: Tom Brenner/The New York Times