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Top vote-counter on ObamaCare bill: 'We're gonna get this done'

Top vote-counter on ObamaCare bill: 'We're gonna get this done'
© Greg Nash

The top vote-counter in the House says there is no doubt that the Republican ObamaCare repeal and replace bill will pass.

"We're gonna get this done," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said with a smile on Thursday.

Scalise had a good reason to be in a good mood, despite being awake for 33 straight hours, fueled by adrenaline and several cups of chicory coffee from New Orleans. He was elated the GOP healthcare bill just cleared his Energy and Commerce Committee after what may be the longest legislative markup in history.

The gregarious 51-year-old Louisiana Republican believes Thursday’s marathon hearing and party-line vote in his committee had given the American Health Care Act enormous momentum as it heads into the next round of legislative hurdles.

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“We know we have a lot of work to do. We just got through step one. Today is the beginning of the end of ObamaCare,” Scalise told The Hill in an interview moments after the panel vote.

“If you look at the Democratic faces on the committee after 27-and-a-half hours,” he said, “you recognize just how powerful this moment is.”

As the House GOP’s chief vote-counter, Scalise has a unique perch as Congress — and the rest of Washington — debate the policy details and human impact of the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare. He’s responsible for corralling the majority needed to push the bill through the House and over to the Senate, and that’s meant holding lots of listening sessions, evaluating different ideas to see if they “add or subtract” to his internal whip count and asking President Trump to help out whenever possible.

Unlike former President Obama, who was criticized for being standoffish and ignoring lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Trump has told congressional leaders he wants to be “directly engaged” in this process.

The president gave some GOP lawmakers a tour of the Oval Office earlier this week and will host the conservative House Freedom Caucus for pizza and bowling next week.

“He’s been very engaged. His staff is very engaged. He wants this bill on his desk,” said Scalise, whose deputy whip team met with the president this week about ways to build support.

“He’s been very hands on and it’s been very helpful.”

The vote on the House floor later this month could be a nail-biter, and all hands are on deck. Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on Thursday shuttled between the Senate and House, meeting with GOP lawmakers who have been critical of the bill.

Asked by The Hill how his healthcare efforts were going, Pence on Thursday replied: “Steady progress!”

This week, the Republican Party appeared to be in an all-out civil war, with conservatives panning the legislation for not fully repealing Obama’s signature healthcare law and GOP leaders arguing that the measure represents the best chance to gut it.

But Scalise — sitting in a room where then-Rep. Abraham Lincoln used to warm himself by the fire in between House votes — argued that the current intraparty divisions portrayed in the media are way overblown. The Energy and Commerce markup, he said, revealed the true Democrat vs. Republican philosophical battle lines over the nation’s healthcare and insurance systems.

“Today you saw very clear lines because that’s what’s at stake. This bill truly does eviscerate ObamaCare. Every Democrat knew that. You could look at their faces. They knew we were about to eviscerate Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP lawmaker: Dems not standing for Trump is 'un-American' Forget the Nunes memo — where's the transparency with Trump’s personal finances? Mark Levin: Clinton colluded with Russia, 'paid for a warrant' to surveil Carter Page MORE’s signature achievement.”

Scalise estimated that nearly everyone in the 237-member GOP conference agrees with about “85 percent” of the leadership-backed health bill, including provisions like defunding Planned Parenthood, eliminating the employer mandate and killing ObamaCare taxes.

“It was significant that we got this first step done in a very unified way. The committee was unified. There was no Republican infighting,” Scalise said. “It was fun to fight between philosophies, conservatives and liberals, and that’s what happened for 27-and-a-half hours.” 

Not one Republican rejected the bill in the Ways and Means Committee or the Energy and Commerce panel. However, conservative and centrist Republicans have expressed significant concerns and have not committed to backing the bill. If every Democrat votes no, Scalise can only afford 21 defections. Eight Republicans have indicated publicly they won't vote for the current measure. 

Repealing ObamaCare is the biggest test of Scalise's political career. But he's not wringing his hands or worrying about the repercussions if Republicans don't get to the finish line. Part of the job of being whip is to never accept failure as an option.

Scalise, a former state legislator, was elected in the last year of the George W. Bush presidency in a special election to succeed Bobby Jindal. Nearly five years later, he became chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and in 2014, he defeated Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and then-Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) to become whip. 

He is very familiar with the intricacies of healthcare, having served on Energy and Commerce since 2009. While some prior whips, most famously Tom DeLay (R-Texas), secured votes through intimidation tactics, Scalise has his own style. He argues the merits and urges his members to look at the big picture. And like all whips, he doesn't take a "no" very easily.

One wildcard for Scalise’s whip count could be the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) score of the GOP bill, due out next week, which will include an estimate of how many Americans would lose insurance under the new plan. But Scalise predicts it won’t be a game-changer.

“Over the years, CBO has been all over the board on healthcare. The only consistent point is they’ve missed the mark on different pieces,” he said. “That’s the nature of a scorekeeper.” 

Similarly, White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday said, "If you're looking for accuracy at the CBO, you're looking in the wrong place."

The CBO estimated that a wireless spectrum sale wouldn't generate any revenue, Scalise pointed out. It ended up raising more than $44 billion.

"They are the only referee we can use, but it doesn’t mean they are infallible,” Scalise said. “We’re not going to let some unelected bureaucrats in Washington stop us from moving forward with our agenda, but at the end of the day CBO is not the Holy Grail.”