This week: Crunch time for Senate’s ObamaCare repeal bill

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are returning to Washington facing a tight schedule and deep divisions on repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

GOP lawmakers left town late last month after punting the issue and will return Monday with few signs of progress toward a deal that can get 50 votes.

In an acknowledgement that Republicans could fall short on their years-long campaign pledge, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that if the current legislation fails they will be forced to negotiate with Democrats.


“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 at a Rotary Club meeting in Kentucky on Thursday, according to multiple reports.

The timeframe gives Republicans just three weeks to try to pass a bill before Congress is scheduled to leave town for the August recess, though leadership is under pressure to cancel the break.

With a slim 52-seat majority, McConnell can only afford to lose two senators. No Democrats are expected to support the repeal bill.

But at least 10 Republican senators are opposed to the Senate’s legislation, and GOP senators signaled over the recess that they don’t think they are near an agreement on healthcare.

“I don’t know if we’re even going to get a bill up,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told voters late last week, asked about his support for the legislation, according to the Des Moines Register.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) predicted that they were still “several weeks” away from a vote, while Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)—who was a surprise “no” vote—said there wasn’t a “significant consensus” on how to move forward.

Republicans are under growing pressure to reject the legislation. In addition to a slew of negative headlines about the bill in their home states, activists held protests and so-called “die-in”s at local Senate offices to try to drive their message home.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), frequently a leadership ally, dealt the latest blow to the bill when he came out against it over the break.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are rallying around an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would give insurance companies the freedom to sell any kinds of health plans they want as long as they also sell at least one plan that qualifies under the regulatory requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“The challenge is we’ve got a bunch of moderate Republicans who want to keep those mandates,” Cruz said in a radio interview last week.

But GOP senators and aides are calling the demand a non-starter for much of the caucus, predicting that if it was allowed a vote it would win over less than 40 senators.

Grassley told constituents that there were concerns within the caucus that the amendment was “subterfuge” to get around requirements on pre-existing conditions.

Leadership has sent two versions of their bill—one with the Cruz amendment, and one without—to the Congressional Budget Office for analysis.

CBO predicted that the initial Senate bill would result in an additional 22 million Americans becoming uninsured over 10 years.

Cruz became the latest senator on Thursday night to back President Trump’s demand that if Republicans can’t pass their current bill they repeal and replace ObamaCare separately.

“We have had – for seven years – we have promised to do that,” Cruz said. “Repealing ObamaCare was the single biggest factor producing a Republican House, a Republican Senate and, I think, ultimately a Republican president.”

The move, considered a non-starter with leadership, would either require Republicans to get 60 votes for a replacement plan or use the fiscal year 2018 budget as a vehicle, scrapping their plans for tax reform.


Defense policy

The annual defense authorization is expected to get a vote in the House this week and is likely to attract fights over undocumented immigrants serving in the military, the war on terror, Russia, Turkey, and a host of other hot-button issues.

The House Armed Services Committee easily cleared the measure before the Independence Day recess by a 60-1 vote. It authorizes $621.5 billion in the base defense budget and $75 billion for overseas contingency operations. That’s $28.5 billion more than what the Trump administration requested.

This week’s vote will come as Republicans try to reach an agreement on a budget resolution for the next fiscal year, which will establish the groundwork for keeping the government funded after September and open the procedural avenue they’re using for tax reform.

Hundreds of amendments have been filed to the legislation that range from imposing punishment on Turkey for its security officials’ role in a brawl outside the Turkish embassy in Washington earlier this year to slapping sanctions on Russia for violating a landmark arms treaty.

Not all of the submitted amendments will get time on the House floor. GOP leaders will choose which amendments can get votes ahead of the measure’s floor consideration.

The new Russia sanctions would be part of an amendment submitted by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

Many Democrats have submitted other amendments in response to Russia’s 2016 election interference.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) has an amendment expressing the sense of Congress that Trump’s hedging on whether Russia was responsible for the hacking efforts “undermines United States credibility.” And Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) wants the House to vote on his amendment that endorses the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia tried to influence the presidential election in Trump’s favor.


Russia sanctions

Days after President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit, Congress is still having trouble passing legislation to impose new sanctions on Moscow.

The Senate originally passed the bill last month in a 98-2 vote, only to run into the constitutional requirement that all revenue measures originate in the House.

Senators then passed a deal making technical changes right before leaving for the Independence Day recess to accommodate the concerns from House Republicans about the constitutional issue.

But House Democrats are concerned about a provision in the proposed fix that would make it harder for the minority party to force floor votes regarding the Trump administration’s Russia sanctions policy.

“Stalling the Russia sanctions bill is just the latest outrage in House Republicans’ long-running complicity in the Trump White House’s weakness toward Putin,” said Ashley Etienne, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “House Democrats stand ready and have been demanding that the Republican Leadership bring the bipartisan Senate passed Russia sanctions bill to the floor for an immediate vote for weeks, to no avail.”

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Royce both say they support the bill and want to see it come up for a vote. Once a resolution is reached on the bill’s language, it’s expected to pass easily with bipartisan support.


California water

The House is slated to consider legislation this week to streamline the approval process for new dams to help alleviate water shortages in California.

The bill, endorsed by other GOP members of the California delegation, is authored by Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), one of the most vulnerable House Republicans heading into 2018.

Among other provisions, Valadao’s bill imposes deadlines for the completion of feasibility studies for water storage projects and establishes the Bureau of Reclamation as the lead agency to coordinate permitting reviews and federal approvals for storage facilities.

The House previously passed legislation last December that included provisions to temporarily ease up on environmental standards and divert water to certain users as a way of helping provide drought relief in central and southern California. 

It was part of a package to provide federal aid to Flint, Mich., to address it water contamination crisis.



The Senate will work through several nominations next week as they continue to negotiate on their healthcare bill.

Senators are expected to take a final vote on Neomi Rao’s nomination to be the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs.

McConnell has also teed up David Nye to be a U.S. district judge for the District of Idaho, and William Hagerty to be ambassador to Japan.

Trump nominated Hagerty, a private equity investor, in March.

Rebecca Kheel contributed.

Tags Chuck Grassley Jerry Moran John Hoeven Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Ted Cruz
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