GOP chairman opens door to Democrats on ObamaCare

A Senate chairman on Tuesday took a significant step toward working with Democrats on stabilizing a core facet of ObamaCare — the healthcare exchanges.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderGOP senator: ObamaCare fix could be in funding bill Collins: Pass bipartisan ObamaCare bills before mandate repeal Murkowski: ObamaCare fix not a precondition for tax vote MORE (R-Tenn.), who helms the Senate Health Committee, announced he will hold bipartisan hearings during the first week of September on strengthening ObamaCare’s individual markets for 2018. The goal: to craft a bipartisan, short-term proposal by mid-September.

The announcement came just days after the Senate failed to pass a scaled-down version of an ObamaCare repeal bill and could deepen the divisions that have plagued the party throughout the repeal-and-replace effort.

The hearings will give Democrats — particularly Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayGOP senator: ObamaCare fix could be in funding bill Collins: Pass bipartisan ObamaCare bills before mandate repeal Murkowski: ObamaCare fix not a precondition for tax vote MORE (Wash.), the committee’s ranking member — a seat at the negotiating table on healthcare for the first time, opening up a process that, to this point, has been tightly controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock McConnell PAC demands Moore return its money Klobuchar taking over Franken's sexual assault bill MORE (R-Ky.).

President Trump has suggested he’ll let ObamaCare implode, but in working with Democrats, Alexander is actively trying to prevent that from happening.

“We need to put out the fire in these collapsing markets wherever these markets are,” Alexander said at the beginning of a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on nominations.

Time is of the essence.

Insurers must sign contracts with the federal government at the end of September saying they’ll sell plans on the exchanges. They’ve been pleading with Congress and the administration for long-term certainty that they’ll continue to receive crucial payments compensating insurers for subsidizing out-of-pocket costs for certain consumers.

But Trump has threatened to withhold those payments, which the administration has been making on a month-to-month basis. Kellyanne Conway, a White House adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump would decide this week if he’ll cut off the payments. 

Congress could act to appropriate the money and alleviate the concerns that the president will, at some point, halt the funds. Alexander has urged Trump to provide the payments through September to give Congress time to hammer out a short-term solution.  

Committee staff members are hitting the ground running, beginning to prepare for the hearings this week. The panel wants to hear testimony from insurance commissioners, patients, insurance companies, governors and healthcare experts.

“Any solution that Congress passes for a 2018 stabilization package would need to be small, bipartisan and balanced,” Alexander said. “It should include funding for the cost-sharing reductions, but it should also include greater flexibility for states in approving health insurance policies.”

Insurers have warned the lack of stability could lead to 20 percent rate hikes in the coming enrollment year. 

“It’s getting very late in the game to really affect premiums for 2018,” Larry Levitt, a senior vice president for the Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote in an email. “But, Congressional action could give insurers greater assurance of future stability and prevent any further exits.”

But even as Alexander talks of stabilizing the markets, conservative lawmakers and groups remain opposed to aiding ObamaCare in any way.

“The Senate’s inability to produce 51 votes for a piece of legislation that delivers on a seven-year campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare is not license for a bipartisan bailout of a failing law,” Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, said in a written statement.

“Is this what it means to be a Republican these days? More bailouts for special interest groups and going back on seven years of promises to repeal ObamaCare?” Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, wrote in an email.

“This is not what conservative grassroots activists who helped give the Republican Party the majority in 2014 and helped keep that majority just last year wanted.”

Several Republican senators are exploring ways to revive ObamaCare repeal, including Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamAlabama election has GOP racing against the clock Graham on Moore: 'We are about to give away a seat' key to Trump's agenda Tax plans show Congress putting donors over voters MORE (S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (La.), who are pushing a proposal to send healthcare funding and decisions directly to the states. 

After the Senate’s failed vote, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTexas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' Moore endorsements disappear from campaign website MORE (R-Texas) suggested the Republican effort isn’t yet over.

“No party can remain in power by lying to the American people, and I hope and pray that our party doesn’t try to do that,” Cruz told reporters.

And McConnell, who said it was “time to move on” after last week’s failed healthcare vote, on Tuesday left the door open to reviving the legislation.

“We’re continuing to score some of the options on healthcare,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference on Tuesday. “There’s still an opportunity to do that.”

Yet with the Senate set to leave town in mid-August, it appears unlikely that healthcare legislation will pass before September, which could create an opening for Alexander to pursue a deal with Democrats.

Some Republicans in the House have already started working across the aisle. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, consisting of 43 Republicans and Democrats, on Monday unveiled proposals that they said would fix problems with the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a centrist who voted against the House GOP’s healthcare bill, said he’s already been talking to senators about the proposal.

And Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a leader of the caucus, said he’s “pleased to see Lamar Alexander taking the lead and beginning to hold hearings on what we’re discussing here.”

Peter Sullivan contributed