By Alexander Bolton - 11/16/15 06:00 AM EST
Senate GOP leaders had hoped to move a House-passed package repealing parts of the controversial healthcare reform law before Thanksgiving. But that plan has been shelved amid party turmoil.
“We have not scheduled that yet,” a Senate GOP leadership aide said Friday. “We don’t have a bill yet. You’re always short the votes until you have a bill.”
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) told reporters last month that “the week or so before Thanksgiving looks like a good opportunity” to move the ObamaCare repeal package.
Now some aides say it may be best to wait until next year or even 2017 to pass as strong a package as possible.
“There could be procedural reasons or vote reasons why we can’t get a bill at all, so it seems the one common denominator amongst everybody is to not mess it up,” said a Senate GOP aide.
Even if GOP leaders can whip up enough votes to approve the House-passed measure, that would repeal only parts of ObamaCare. Some conservatives argue that such an approach is too incremental, and would actually set back the effort to eradicate the law “root and branch,” as Republicans have promised.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellJohn McCain: No longer a profile in courage McConnell: Senate won't take up TPP this year Barack Obama is the founder of Donald Trump MORE (R-Ky.) vowed last week that he would pass legislation repealing ObamaCare.
“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.
But he may lose as many as five conservatives and three centrists in his conference on the House-passed bill, leaving him with 46 votes, five short of a simple majority.
“There are five that say you have to repeal all of ObamaCare or they’d vote against it, and you have three that say you have to take Planned Parenthood out or they won’t vote for reconciliation,” said another Senate GOP aide.
Three centrists — Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — would be reluctant to vote for the reconciliation package if it continues to include language defunding Planned Parenthood. All three have raised concerns about defunding the family-planning-services group.
McConnell only needs 51 votes instead of the customary 60 because he is moving the repeal measure under a special budgetary process, known as reconciliation. The downside of the strategy is that the package can only include provisions designed to impact the budget deficit.
As a result, popular parts of the law, such as the prohibition against discriminating against pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26, cannot be included.
Conservative senators argue that the House repeal bill does not go far enough and could actually help establish ObamaCare by repealing only the most unpopular provisions, such as the individual and employer mandates, and the "Cadillac tax" on expensive health plans and the medical device tax.
“From their perspective, you’re taking stuff that has some of the most sting out of ObamaCare and making it more palatable rather than repealing the whole thing,” said a Senate GOP aide. “You’re cutting down the public opposition to ObamaCare by fixing it that way.”
It's not even clear the language repealing the individual and employer mandates is eligible for reconciliation protection following a ruling by the parliamentarian last week that has given rise to conflicting interpretations.
Two presidential candidates, Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzThe Trail 2016: On the fringe FULL SPEECH: Hillary Clinton links Trump to 'alt-right' in Reno Presidential hopefuls still bank on retail politics MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioAnalysis: Clinton speaks at higher grade level than Trump Trump poised to betray primary supporters on immigration Senate Dems' campaign arm knocks GOP for Trump support MORE (R-Fla.) issued a joint statement with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) last month pledging to oppose the House-passed repeal bill.
"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,” they said in the statement.
Rubio’s stance is especially significant because he is now seen within the Senate GOP conference as the most viable mainstream presidential candidate in the general election. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is also running for president, is expected to vote with them against anything that falls significantly short of a full repeal.
It would be embarrassing, to say the least, if most of the Senate GOP conference voted for a repeal package that the party’s future nominee rejected as too weak.
Passing a reconciliation bill also risks a backlash from the GOP’s right flank.
"Mitch McConnell promised Americans that he would rip out Obamacare ‘root and branch’ during the campaign. He even promised his own Republican colleagues that the budget resolution would be used to repeal Obamacare with only 51 votes. But now he's going to break those promises, which is what we have consistently predicted he would do,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Some conservatives accuse GOP leaders of not being fully committed to a wholesale repeal of the law, pointing to past statements.
In November 2012, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called ObamaCare “the law of the land.”
In May of 2010, Cornyn, then the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Huffington Post that Republicans would not repeal all of ObamaCare.
“There is non-controversial stuff here like the preexisting conditions exclusion and those sorts of things,” he said at the time. “Now we are not interested in repealing that. And that is frankly a distraction.”
Proponents of the House-passed repeal package note that 239 Republicans voted for it in the lower chamber, including many members of the Conservative House Freedom Caucus.
But Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), one of seven Republicans who voted no, says some of his colleagues are now having regrets.
He argues the House bill only repeals six of the law’s 419 provisions, or 1.4 percent of it.
“We promised people that we would work as hard as we could for a full repeal of ObamaCare,” he told The Hill. “That’s about as weak a partial repeal as you can have in my opinion. This didn’t do anything to the major scope of it.
“Another member I was talking to that voted for it said, ‘I don’t know, we looked at this from an economical standpoint, and had we had a chance to vote again, we would vote against it,’” he added.