Senate GOP plans to beef up ObamaCare repeal package

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are moving ahead with an ObamaCare repeal package they say will go significantly further than a bill passed by the House in a bid to win over conservatives.

They hope to approve legislation that would repeal -ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, which 30 states have adopted, and eliminate the insurance exchanges and subsidies set up by the landmark law, according to Senate GOP sources.

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But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellBarack Obama is the founder of Donald Trump Giffords-backed gun control group endorses Toomey, Kirk Republicans say party can’t afford to cut ties to Trump MORE (R-Ky.) is playing his cards close to the vest, keeping many details secret.

On Tuesday he unveiled a substitute amendment to address procedural concerns raised by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. That bill is only nine pages and includes only bare-bones technical changes to ObamaCare.

Other measures to strengthen the House bill will be voted on after senators consider the procedural fix, said several Senate GOP sources.

The parliamentarian threatened to derail the House-passed ObamaCare repeal package, which McConnell is bringing straight to the floor, by raising red flags over provisions undermining the mandates on people to buy health insurance and on companies to offer it.

The fix proposed by GOP leaders would circumvent MacDonough’s objection by zeroing out the penalties on people and employers who fail to meet those requirements.

The parliamentarian advised Tuesday that it would pass the Byrd Rule, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The Byrd Rule is the litmus test for passing legislation under special budgetary rules that require only a simple majority. To pass muster, legislation must be primarily focused on addressing the deficit, which is why only provisions that have a budgetary impact may be included.

A Republican senator on the Finance Committee said leaders also plan to offer amendments that would repeal authority for the federal insurance exchange, phasing them out over two years.

The source said another proposal would repeal insurance subsidies, also over a two-year span. 

On the table as well are proposals to repeal many of the tax increases not included in the House legislation, which focuses on eliminating the “Cadillac tax” on expensive health plans and the medical device tax.

Another Republican senator said GOP leaders touted a graphic during one private meeting showing the House bill reduces the deficit by $78 billion over 10 years, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office estimate, while the Senate plan would save around $400 billion.

“The House bills saves $70 billion. Ours saves $400 billion,” the lawmaker said.

Senate GOP leaders have assured restive conservatives they will repeal as much of ObamaCare as possible under Senate rules.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who are running for president, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) issued a statement in October pledging to oppose the House bill for being too weak.

Lee has said he is encouraged by McConnell’s plans to strengthen it.

Cruz declined to comment on Tuesday as he headed into a GOP lunch meeting.

On Monday, Republican leaders floated a plan to phase out the Medicaid expansion over two years, reassuring endangered incumbents from battleground states that have already adopted the reform.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania, a state that has expanded its Medicaid program, applauded the new language.

“We have a mechanism to phase this out, which is what we’d always contemplated,” he told reporters.

McConnell feels confident he will have the votes he needs to pass the package this week.

“This week, we finally have a chance to vote to end -ObamaCare’s cycle of broken promises and failures with just 51 votes,” he said on the Senate floor.

Not all vulnerable Republican incumbents have signed off on the Medicaid language, however.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), whose home state of New Hampshire has adopted the expansion, said Tuesday she is still reviewing the proposal. Ayotte faces a tough reelection fight next year.

McConnell moved to proceed to the repeal package on Tuesday evening, starting 20 hours of debate and setting up a series of votes on Thursday.

Both sides hope to finish it by Thursday. A group of Democrats hope to depart Thursday evening to fly to Paris for global climate talks on Friday.

Few Republican senators have seen the legislative text of the proposals to strengthen the House bill, and they’re uncertain whether they will be voted on as separate amendments or in one catch-all amendment at the end of the vote-a-rama.