Republicans debate Plan B if ObamaCare repeal fails

Senate Republicans are starting to consider what they should do if their ObamaCare replacement bill fails to pass. 

Lawmakers are largely splitting into two camps: those who want to work with Democrats on a fix to the healthcare law, and those who want to simply pass a straight repeal of the law and work on a replacement later.

While conservatives are mainly behind the second option, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellParliamentarian deals setback to GOP repeal bill OPINION | How Democrats stole the nation's lower federal courts Flight restrictions signal possible August vacation for Trump MORE (R-Ky.) made waves on Thursday by saying that his party could work with Democrats to stabilize ObamaCare markets if the repeal bill fails. 

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“If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to private health insurance markets must occur,” McConnell said.

McConnell’s comments could have been intended as a message to conservatives who are opposed to the existing repeal bill, suggesting they will like the result even less if the GOP has to work with Democrats. 

Indeed, McConnell warned late last month that “my suspicion is that any negotiation with the Democrats would include none of the reforms that we would like to make.”

Nonetheless, Democrats seized on McConnell’s comments. They said McConnell has now acknowledged that ObamaCare markets can be fixed and that the law is not collapsing and beyond repair, contrary to the arguments that Republicans have been making for years.

Some Republican senators have even expressed eagerness to work with Democrats on a healthcare bill. 

In announcing her opposition to the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill last month, centrist Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsThe GOP Wonder Women who saved healthcare for 22 million Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan OPINION | GOP healthcare attack is a vendetta against President Obama MORE (R-Maine) pointed to the millions of people who would lose coverage under the Republican bill and wrote on Twitter: “I want to work w/ my GOP & Dem colleagues to fix the flaws in [the Affordable Care Act].” 

Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonGOP frets over stalled agenda Conservatives target Congress, not Trump, after healthcare collapse Healthcare push leaves Republicans in disarray MORE (R-Wis.) has also been pushing for a bipartisan fix. “Let's stabilize the markets, then work long term on a bipartisan solution to actually fix the healthcare system,” he said last month.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSen. Flake's GOP challenger: McCain should resign The Hill's 12:30 Report Armed Services leaders appoint strategy panel members MORE (R-Ariz.) said on CBS on Sunday that the GOP bill is "probably going to be dead."

He then suggested that Democrats be at least somewhat involved in the new process if the current measure fails.

"It means they can have amendments considered," he said. "And even when they lose, then they're part of the process. That's what democracy is supposed to be all about."

But several conservative senators are taking the opposite tack. If the current bill fails, they say, Republicans should just repeal the healthcare law without a replacement, then work on an alternative later.

Conservative Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzEx-CBO directors defend against GOP attacks on ObamaCare analysis Cruz: GOP will 'look like fools' if ObamaCare isn’t repealed The GOP Wonder Women who saved healthcare for 22 million MORE (R-Texas), Mike LeeMike LeeCruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power Overnight Finance: GOP offers measure to repeal arbitration rule | Feds fine Exxon M for Russian sanctions violations | Senate panel sticks with 2017 funding levels for budget | Trump tax nominee advances | Trump unveils first reg agenda The Memo: Trump tries to bend Congress to his will MORE (R-Utah), Rand PaulRand PaulThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan Overnight Healthcare: CBO predicts 22M would lose coverage under Senate ObamaCare replacement MORE (R-Ky.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) have all expressed support for that strategy.

President Trump has also endorsed the idea of repealing first and replacing later.

“If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!” Trump tweeted last week.

The problem is that a straight repeal bill almost certainly would not have the votes to pass, given that many other Republicans want to put forward an alternative way for people to get coverage at the same time.

That dynamic is immensely frustrating for conservatives, who note that moderate Republicans already voted for straight repeal of ObamaCare in 2015, when they had the safety of knowing it would never become law because then-President Barack Obama would veto it.

“Remember, in December of 2015, every Republican senator, except, again, Susan Collins, everybody voted for a repeal plan,” Sasse said on CNN this month. “The only thing then was that President Obama vetoed it. Now President Trump would sign it.” 

McConnell, though, rejected the idea of repealing first and replacing later over the recess.

"The private health insurance market is imploding,” McConnell told WBKO in Kentucky. “Premiums are going up, co-payments are going up, deductibles are going up, so we have to solve the current crisis, and I think repealing and delaying the replacement doesn't work."

All the talk of a backup plan comes as Republicans remain divided and well short of the needed votes to pass the current replacement bill, known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act. 

McConnell is trying to save the bill with concessions to both moderates and conservatives, but satisfying both sides could prove difficult. 

Meanwhile, Washington is trying to game out how a possible bipartisan bill on ObamaCare — something that has rarely happened since Democrats passed the law in 2010 — would work.

Democrats have argued that there are pieces of the current Republican measure that would help stabilize the markets, like money for a stability fund and for key ObamaCare payments to insurers known as cost-sharing reductions, which help insurers offer affordable plans to low-income customers. Those provisions could help cut down on the current uncertainty, stop some insurers from losing money on ObamaCare plans and entice insurers to participate in more markets.  

Democrats might be willing to give a few concessions to Republicans in exchange. 

Conservatives, though, dismiss these ideas as simply giving more money to insurance companies.

“If the Republican Party wants to work with Democrats to bailout Obamacare, the results will be catastrophic for the party,” Michael Needham, CEO of the conservative group Heritage Action, said in a statement Friday.

“For seven years it has pledged it is the party of repeal and now is the time to work toward that goal."