McConnell leans on presidential candidates in bid to save ObamaCare repeal

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Pelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Reid: Groping accusations show Trump’s ‘sickness’ MORE (R-Ky.) is making a bull rush at the conservatives running for president who are withholding support from an ObamaCare repeal package that they feel doesn’t go far enough.

McConnell has told his conference that it needs to send something to President Obama’s desk and that he doesn’t plan to lure moderates to support the legislation by stripping out controversial language defunding Planned Parenthood.

He’s sending a simple message to the Republican White House hopefuls: Now is the time to send a message on ObamaCare. Get on board.

“Marco has to be very careful about this,” said a Senate GOP source close to McConnell, referring to Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Poll: Clinton holds 4-point lead in Florida Republicans, it's time to stop asking 'What would Reagan do?' MORE (R-Fla.). “I know he’s worried about [Ted] Cruz saying this is bill is too Washington, but at the end of the day, you’ve been talking all this time about repealing ObamaCare, and this is your chance to do it.”

Rubio and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFive takeaways from money race Club for Growth: Anti-Trump spending proved to be 'good call' Republicans, it's time to stop asking 'What would Reagan do?' MORE (R-Texas), who are both running for president, issued a joint statement last month vowing to oppose the House-passed ObamaCare repeal bill because it does not roll back the entire law. Conservative Sen. 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) also signed it. 

Only seven House Republicans voted against that repeal package, and the Senate version is likely to be very similar, several Senate Republicans said.

“We’re going to repeal as much of ObamaCare as possible, but the House bill got an overwhelming majority, most of the Freedom Caucus voted for it, so I think we’ll pass something similar,” said a Senate Republican who requested anonymity.

The challenge now is finding a way to change the bill just enough so that Rubio, Cruz and Lee are willing to vote yes.

A fourth potential holdout is Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.), another White House hopeful.

“It’s an ObamaCare repeal bill, and it’s the only ObamaCare repeal bill that you’re going to get on the president’s desk,” said a Senate GOP aide. “All of us have been trying to figure out a way to get conservative objectives in front of the president. This is a golden opportunity to do that on the biggest domestic issue of the moment.”

“He speaks in general on the importance of doing something. As the conference decides what that something is, that’s where he ultimately will go,” another Senate GOP aide said of McConnell.

McConnell is still short of the 51 votes he needs to pass the repeal bill under a special budgetary process known as reconciliation. His allies see Rubio and Paul as the holdouts most likely to flip.

Senate Republican sources say centrist Sens. Mark KirkMark KirkGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Iran sending ships to Yemeni coast after US ship fires at Houthi sites MORE (R-Ill.) and 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) are out of reach because of the language defunding Planned Parenthood.

“I think we have a better chance of getting the four conservatives than Kirk and Collins. I think we should be able to get Rubio, which means we’re at least one short,” said one Republican senator, who assumed that centrist Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiWriting in Mike Pence won’t do any good in these states GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump campaign left out of Alaska voter guide MORE (R-Alaska) and Paul can be persuaded to vote yes.

Paul indicated to Fox News host Greta Van Susteren in January that it would make sense to send a partial ObamaCare repeal package to Obama.

“I think by putting bills forward, you’re going to find out what the president will veto and what he won’t and what the middle ground is,” he said. 

But Murkowski, who represents a more conservative state than Kirk or Collins, remains a big problem for the GOP leadership. 

Moderates such as Murkowski were told the parliamentarian would rule the Planned Parenthood language couldn’t be included in the package.

But the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, slammed that escape hatch before Veterans Day by ruling that the provision survived the Byrd Rule, the litmus test for legislation that moves under special budgetary protection.

Now GOP leaders are embracing the Planned Parenthood language and warning presidential hopefuls not to vote against it.

Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Republicans question FCC watchdog's 'independence' The Trail 2016: Sinister plot MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership, floated the idea early last week of taking the Planned Parenthood language out of the bill, but leadership quickly reversed course.

Thune later told reporters he spoke too soon, as McConnell announced definitively Tuesday that the language would stay in place.

Now Republicans who support the reconciliation bill are making the argument that Cruz, Rubio, Paul or any other self-described conservative would be voting at their own peril to oppose it.

“We have 51 pro-life Republicans in the Senate, which is all we need to pass the reconciliation bill out of the Senate,” said a Senate GOP aide. “Why would anyone be arguing to take the Planned Parenthood language out of there? There’s plenty of reason for 51 Republicans to vote against it if Planned Parenthood language is not in there.” 

Even though the vote remains in doubt, Senate GOP leaders are projecting an air of confidence to increase pressure on their colleagues.

“I think we’re going to do it after the Thanksgiving break,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Conservatives backing Trump keep focus on Supreme Court MORE (Texas), who is helping McConnell round up votes. “We’ve been working with everyone to get to 51.”

He said his colleagues need to recognize that “this is our best option to actually put something on the president’s desk that delivers a mortal wound to ObamaCare.”

“I think it’s pretty hard to explain a no vote,” he said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike EnziMike EnziGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Report: Feds spend billions on PR Restive GOP freshmen eye entitlement reform MORE (R-Wyo.), a key member of the whip team, told colleagues bluntly at a meeting last week, “We need to get 51 votes,” according to one lawmaker president. 

The implicit message: It’s everyone's responsibility to get there.