McConnell: Path on healthcare 'murky'
Cruz: Let's overrule Senate officer to expand ObamaCare bill
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), emerging as a key player in negotiations to repeal and replace ObamaCare, says Vice President Pence should exert his power over the Senate to significantly expand the scope of the House healthcare reform bill.
Cruz, who had dinner with President Trump on Wednesday evening, says that Pence, who by virtue of his office also serves as president of the Senate, should be prepared to overrule the chamber's parliamentarian to bulk up the controversial measure.
House Republicans left several reforms popular with conservatives out of their healthcare bill because the parliamentarian is likely to rule them outside the scope of special rules in the upper chamber that prevent a Democratic filibuster.
Cruz argues that Pence, as the person likely to preside over the chamber at the most important moments of the healthcare debate, can decide what is and what isn't eligible for the so-called reconciliation process. He says the Senate parliamentarian's role is to advise, not to rule.
"Under the Budget Act of 1974, which is what governs reconciliation, it is the presiding officer, the vice president of the United States, who rules on what's permissible on reconciliation and what is not," Cruz told reporters Thursday. "That's a conversation I've been having with a number of my colleagues."
Republicans control only 52 seats in the Senate, where most controversial legislation needs 60 votes to overcome filibusters by the minority party.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to circumvent the 60-vote threshold and pass the healthcare measure by using the budget reconciliation process.
But only legislation that has more than an incidental impact on federal spending or revenue can be protected from filibusters.
Cruz declined to say specifically whether he brought up his plan directly with Trump at dinner, only acknowledging, "I've been visiting with leaders throughout the administration."
The Senate parliamentarian has played a high-profile - and high-pressure - role in past legislative debates. In 2001, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) fired parliamentarian Bob Dove after he delivered rulings that frustrated the GOP. One decision held that only one tax bill could be protected through reconciliation.
Cruz says that Republicans don't need to fire parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough if she rules that GOP-favored reforms, such as allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines or repealing the mandate on insurance companies to provide coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, must meet a 60-vote, instead of a 51-vote, threshold.
He says Pence can simply make his own interpretation of Senate rules and set aside the parliamentarian's advice if he disagrees.
"You don't have to override the parliamentarian or get a new parliamentarian," Cruz said. "Under the statute, it is the vice president who rules. It is the presiding officer who makes the decision. The parliamentarian advises on that question."
It would be difficult for Democrats to overturn Pence's decisions. They would need to muster 60 votes to reverse him, and they only control 48 seats, including the Independents who caucus with them.
Cruz says that repealing the insurance mandate, which bars insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, and allowing people to buy plans across state lines will reduce the cost of health insurance and have a clear budgetary impact.
Medical malpractice tort reform, another idea popular with conservatives, could then also be included in the healthcare reform bill, Cruz said.
"Every one of these reforms has an enormous budgetary impact. An impact of billions of dollars if not hundreds of billions of dollars," he said.
Senate Democrats rejected Cruz's proposal as a direct violation of Senate precedent.
"Then anything could be subject to reconciliation," said a senior Democratic aide. "You could authorize war with a simple majority and argue that it affects spending."
The aide called Cruz's idea "outlandish and not going to happen."