Senate Republicans get green light for ObamaCare repeal bill

Greg Nash

The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that defunding Planned Parenthood can be part of a special Republican package repealing parts of ObamaCare, The Hill has learned.

The parliamentarian on Tuesday gave word that the provision passes muster under the Senate’s Byrd Rule, which means it can be attached to a reconciliation package that cannot be filibustered on the Senate floor.

Some Senate sources had raised questions over whether the reconciliation bill passed by the House — which strips funding from Planned Parenthood — was even eligible for the reconciliation process.

That question is now settled, which means the Senate can begin debating the measure once GOP leaders round up enough votes to bring it to the floor.

“The House of Representatives passed important legislation that ripped out the core pillars of ObamaCare and fully complies with the House’s budget rules. Today the Senate Parliamentarian advised us that their ObamaCare repeal bill can proceed under the rules of reconciliation,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFive takeaways from Florida Senate debate Liberal groups call for delaying cures bill to next year Conservative groups urge against extending energy tax breaks MORE (R-Ky.).

“The Parliamentarian also confirmed that the restrictions on payments to certain health care providers in section 201 of the House bill can be accomplished consistent with the Byrd rule,” Stewart added, referring to language defunding Planned Parenthood.

MacDonough also determined, however, that the House-passed language repealing the mandates on individuals and employers to buy and offer healthcare coverage needed to be changed to comply with Senate rules.

Stewart said these key components of the House bill could be changed without altering their intent.

“When the Senate begins debate on the ObamaCare repeal bill, there will be a substitute amendment that preserves the provisions of the House-passed bill, while ensuring that the underlying bill complies with rules that apply only in the Senate,” he said.

A senior Senate GOP aide downplayed the expected changes to the individual and employer mandate repeals as “tweaks.”

The ruling on the Planned Parenthood provision is mixed news for McConnell because it may complicate efforts to pass the repeal bill.

Three moderates, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsRepublican opposition to raising the minimum wage Is crumbling 5 takeaways from the Indiana Senate debate GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Maine), Mark KirkMark KirkEndangered GOP senator: I don't know for whom I'll vote California National Guard official: Congress knew about bonus repayments Great Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system MORE (R-Ill.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiThe most important question in 2017: how do we get to yes? Writing in Mike Pence won’t do any good in these states GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Alaska), have balked at defunding Planned Parenthood.

If the repeal bill includes language targeting the organization, they may not support it.

“Collins and Kirk can’t vote for it,” said a Senate GOP source.

But the development is welcome news for House conservatives, who made defunding Planned Parenthood a top priority during the government funding fight this fall.

The votes of Collins, Kirk and Murkowski are crucial because three conservatives, Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzCruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed Commerce official will hit critics of domain name transition The media is rigging the election by reporting WikiLeaks emails MORE (R-Texas), Marco RubioMarco RubioFive takeaways from Florida Senate debate The Trail 2016: Comeback in the works? US abstains from UN resolution on Cuba embargo for first time MORE (R-Fla.) and Mike LeeMike LeeDonald Trump's Mormon PR problem Trump's big worry isn't rigged elections, it's GOP establishment GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (R-Utah), have vowed to oppose the House-passed bill.

They issued a joint statement last month panning the House measure for not going far enough.

“On Friday the House of Representatives is set to vote on a reconciliation bill that repeals only parts of ObamaCare. This simply isn’t good enough. Each of us campaigned on a promise to fully repeal ObamaCare and a reconciliation bill is the best way to send such legislation to President Obama’s desk,” the three senators said.

Murkowski signaled Tuesday evening that she might vote to proceed to the reconciliation package even if it includes language to defund Planned Parenthood because it can be amended at a later date on the floor.

“The way it has been discussed in our conference is that there are going to be many opportunities for amendments. If the Planned Parenthood piece stays in, I’m sure there will be amendments to take it out,” she said.

Republicans control 54 Senate seats and can lose only three votes to pass an ObamaCare repeal bill, because Democrats are expected to vote unanimously against it.

Had the parliamentarian ruled the Planned Parenthood language violated the Byrd Rule, it would have forced GOP leaders to take it out. While that may have made it easier for moderates to vote yes on the broader package, it could have sparked a conservative backlash.

“It might make it easier to pass the bill but it might not make life easier,” said a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss legislative strategy. 

McConnell on Tuesday pledged to send the repeal bill to Obama despite divisions in his conference. 

"We want to make sure the American people know we're still on their side, and that's the reason we intend to send ObamaCare repeal to the president's desk," he told reporters. 

The Byrd Rule, named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who authored the 1974 Budget Act, is a five-part test that determines what language can be protected from filibuster during reconciliation.

It requires that the primary purpose of provisions receiving special protection is to affect spending and revenues.  

Some Senate sources questioned whether the Planned Parenthood language qualified because the chief motivation behind it seemed to be to halt federal funding to the group instead of to reduce the deficit.