Senate GOP defends writing its healthcare bill in private

Senate GOP defends writing its healthcare bill in private
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Senate Republicans are defending their decision to write their own ObamaCare replacement bill behind closed doors, bypassing the usual committee process.

They say it is unlikely that the bill will go through hearings and markups in committee, though they stress that a working group of lawmakers, as well as the entire Republican caucus, will have heavy input on the bill.

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Yet the decision means that there will likely not be public sessions where experts could testify on the effects of the bill, nor will there be a public committee session, known as a markup, where lawmakers could offer amendments changing the legislation.

Instead, while Republicans could always change their minds, the measure is on track to be written out of the public eye before heading straight to the Senate floor.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchFreed American 'overwhelmed with gratitude' after being released from Venezuela Former US prisoner Josh Holt returns from Venezuela Hatch, Trump say American held in Venezuela returning to US MORE (R-Utah) argued the public is not being left out.

“I think the public knows what’s going on; I think you guys make sure that they know,” Hatch told reporters.

“I don’t think it’s going to go through the committees, at least from what I know about it,” he said separately.

Still, Hatch said, “I think most things should be marked up in committee,” but adding that the healthcare bill did not need to be.

It is highly unusual for a measure overhauling the healthcare system — which represents roughly 20 percent of the U.S. economy — to be negotiated in private, and Democrats are already going on the attack.

The top two Democrats on the relevant committees, Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Abortion rights group plans M campaign to flip the House The federal judiciary needs more Latino judges Senate Dems to Mnuchin: Don't index capital gains to inflation MORE (Ore.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump to sign 'right to try' drug bill next week Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump official won't OK lifetime limits on Medicaid Dems warn against changes to federal family planning program MORE (Wash.), sent a letter to their Republican counterparts last week calling for hearings on the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation.

“The Senate Finance and [Health] Committees cannot abdicate our responsibility to hold public hearings on such sweeping health reform legislation,” Wyden and Murray wrote. “Before passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Senate held a thorough, collaborative, and deliberate process.”

The Democrats pointed out that in 2009, when ObamaCare was being drafted, the two committees each held around 50 hearings and held markups that stretched over multiple days, accepting multiple Republican amendments to the bill.

Republicans have for years accused Democrats of ramming through the Affordable Care Act in 2009, but now the tables in the messaging war have turned.

Democrats say they have not yet heard back from Republicans about their letter.

The closed-door process in the Senate comes despite some House GOP lawmakers wishing in retrospect that their chamber’s process had been more open.

House committees did hold markups on their version of the repeal-and-replace bill, but there were no hearings with expert witnesses testifying on the legislation. The markups, while stretching on for hours, also did not adopt any substantive changes to the bill, instead ratifying what had already been written and approved by Republican leadership.

“I always said the process was bad,” Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) told a combative town hall crowd this week, according to The Washington Post. “It was rushed. It was rushed and there should have been hearings. And we should have had an open amendment process.”

Bill Hoagland, a longtime Senate Republican staffer now at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said it was “unusual” that the healthcare bill would not go through the Senate committees of jurisdiction.

“It’s the way legislation is supposed to be considered: hold hearings, markups,” he said. “I think it produces better legislation at the end of the day.”

He noted that Democrats used a fast-track process to pass part of ObamaCare in 2010 without going through committee, but said that was somewhat different because it was only making modifications to a bill already passed through the regular committee process. 

Some Republican senators on the finance and health panels were tight-lipped on the subject of hearings.

“I’m not going to say anything about healthcare until I see a product,” said Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDem senator: Trump Jr. may have given 'false testimony' about meeting with foreign nationals A second chance for Republicans to reform farm handouts Former US attorneys urge support for Trump nominee MORE (R-Iowa), when asked whether the Finance Committee should have hearings and a markup.

Grassley, a senior member of the Finance Committee, spent months negotiating with Democrats in 2009 over what would become ObamaCare, before eventually deciding he could not support the bill.

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Fed nominees vow to rebuff pressure from Trump on interest rates The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-S.C.), asked whether there should be hearings, said, “I typically leave leadership decisions to the leadership.”

One member of both Health and Finance, though, Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsRepublicans think Trump is losing trade war Senate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA This week: House GOP regroups after farm bill failure MORE (R-Kan.), said on Monday he expected there would be a committee markup. “I can’t imagine” there wouldn’t be, he said.

But Hatch later indicated that, in fact, there would not be.