Senator says he nearly has the votes for ObamaCare repeal

Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyDems seek to leverage ObamaCare fight for midterms GOP sen says Trump, Canada spat is like ‘a fight with your spouse’ HSAs expansion is a key to health care freedom MORE (R-La.) is predicting he will win enough votes to pass his last ditch ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill through the Senate, despite the long odds he seems to be facing.

“I am pretty confident we’ll get there on the Republican side,” Cassidy told a group of reporters in his office on Friday. “We’re probably at 48-49 [votes] and talking to two or three more.”

The problem for Senate Republicans when it comes to ObamaCare repeal has always been getting the final few votes to put them over the top. The repeal legislation that failed in July got 49 votes, but fell short because three GOP senators bucked leadership and voted no.

There is an extremely short window to pass the bill before a procedural deadline of Sept. 30. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul's neighbor sentenced to 30 days in prison over assault Dems best GOP as Scalise returns for annual charity baseball game The Hill's Morning Report — Can the economy help Republicans buck political history in 2018? MORE (R-Ky.) on Friday announced his opposition, saying the bill kept too much of ObamaCare.

Cassidy said that if the bill does not pass by Sept. 30, he would try again in the future. 

But he pointed to a closed-door Senate GOP lunch on Thursday as a positive sign. He said after an informal discussion of the bill, Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerGraham jokes about Corker: GOP would have to be organized to be a cult Lawmakers, media serve up laughs at annual 'Will on the Hill' McConnell will ask Cornyn to stay on GOP leadership team MORE (R-Miss.) asked to devote the lunch to discussing health care more deeply. 

“I told my wife when I got home last night that yesterday may have been my best day as a senator, and I’ve had some pretty good days,” Cassidy said. 

Cassidy said the high point of the discussion was when Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump to attend fundraiser for Heller Dems seek to seize on data privacy as midterm issue Anti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing MORE (R-Nev.), who is co-sponsoring the measure and facing a tough reelection race next year, stood up.

“I’m running for reelection. People have told me to lay low on health care,” Heller said, according to Cassidy. “I said I’m not laying low. I wasn’t elected senator to lay low.” 

The plan, which was put forward by Cassidy, Heller, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSenate probes FBI's heavy-handed use of redactions to obstruct congressional investigators Hillicon Valley: DHS gets new cyber chief | White House warns lawmakers not to block ZTE deal | White nationalists find home on Google Plus | Comcast outbids Disney for Fox | Anticipation builds for report on FBI Clinton probe Graham jokes about Corker: GOP would have to be organized to be a cult MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senator: Family separation policy 'inconsistent' with American values Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea Trump’s danger on North Korea? Raised expectations MORE (R-S.C.), seeks to give more power to states. It ends ObamaCare funding for subsidies to help people afford coverage and funding for the Medicaid expansion, instead converting both pots of money into a block grant to states. 

GOP leadership, though, has not thrown its full weight behind the bill, which would mean diving back into the divisive ObamaCare debate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress had a good couple of weeks — now let's keep it going McCarthy: 'The Mueller investigation has got to stop' McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE (R-Ky.) has told Cassidy and Graham that they need to find 51 votes on their own.

But Cassidy said that leadership is telling the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to prioritize its analysis of the measure, a crucial step before it can be considered on the floor.

“We’re told that CBO was told by our leadership to make this a priority above all other priorities,” Cassidy said. “Mitch has always said, ‘Show me you can get 50 votes.’ ” 

With 50 votes, Republicans could then rely on Vice President Pence to break the tie.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' Senate rejects effort to boost Congress's national security oversight Graham jokes about Corker: GOP would have to be organized to be a cult MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber, said Thursday that he would do a whip count on the bill to determine its level of support.

The prospects of the bill passing have alarmed Democratic activists, who are now mobilizing against it.

Democrats argue the block grants in the bill would be too small and would lead to cuts in Medicaid and other health spending. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the measure would lead to a 17 percent cut in spending compared to ObamaCare in 2026. 

Cassidy, though, argues, that his measure simply equalizes spending by giving more money to many states that have not expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare and cutting back on some high-cost states that he argues are spending too much.

“Should the rest of the country sacrifice because they have costs that are so incredibly high?” Cassidy said, using Massachusetts as an example of a state he said spends too much.

Defending a new cap on overall Medicaid payments in the bill, Cassidy said that current spending on the program is “not sustainable.”

The bill would also allow states to apply for waivers to repeal ObamaCare regulations, including the prohibition against insurers charging sick people higher premiums.

Cassidy, who has long promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions, said that the bill would still protect them because states would have to show they are providing “affordable and adequate” coverage in order to get a waiver.

He also said coverage losses that will likely be found by the CBO for his bill would be wrong. The office's analysis puts too much importance on the effect of repealing ObamaCare's mandate to have coverage, he said.

"I just don’t care about the coverage numbers because their methodology has been proven to be wrong," Cassidy said.  

Asked why he has kept plugging away on his bill, Cassidy cited the book “A Peace to End All Peace,” about the history of the Middle East and David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel.

“The author says David Ben-Gurion was of the type that said, ‘If you continue to do what is right, good things happen,'” Cassidy said. “So we figured we’d just keep plugging away and doing what’s right, and something good would happen.”