Senate feels pressure for summer healthcare vote

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are under mounting pressure to pass an ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill before the congressional recess in August.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is wary of committing to a specific deadline after the House struggled to pass a bill, the White House wants the upper chamber to hit the gas.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and House GOP lawmakers are publicly nudging the Senate to vote before lawmakers leave town at the end of July.

McConnell remained tight-lipped on Tuesday, only saying that Senate Republicans are “all about healthcare these days … which we will move forward sometime in the near future.” 

{mosads}But other top Republican senators are signaling they want to move a bill before the monthlong break. 

Asked about the potential for the Senate to vote before the recess, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) responded, “I would certainly hope so.” 

“I think [McConnell] expects that eventually we’re going to vote, and I would certainly hope that that would be sometime this summer,” the No. 3 Senate Republican told The Hill. “That would be my guess.” 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the timeline being pushed by Price is “possible,” adding, “I hope we can.” 

Setting deadlines for controversial bills is politically tricky, but GOP members in both the House and Senate say that without them, bills usually languish. And based upon comments Tuesday by members of the Senate’s GOP leadership team, there will be a vote on an ObamaCare replacement measure one way or the other.

Both Hatch and Thune are part of a 13-member working group convened by McConnell that is meeting twice a week. Senate Republicans are also dedicating three caucus lunches a week to the thorny topic, meeting on Tuesday with both Vice President Pence and Seema Verma, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

Passing legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act before the August recess would pay political dividends for Republicans, handing them a victory to tout as they head back to their home states.

From there, the plan would be to merge the House and Senate bills and pass them through both chambers this fall — before the election year hits.

The Obama administration tried to get healthcare reform through in its first year, but the measure remained stuck in the Senate for months before narrowly passing Congress in March 2010. Months later, Republicans captured the House and picked up Senate seats after campaigning hard against ObamaCare.

Getting a repeal-and-replace bill through the narrowly divided Senate will be extremely difficult, but passing a conference bill would be even tougher.

Many GOP members cringed as a string of high-profile White House controversies threaten to derail their party’s agenda. Meanwhile, Republican legislators — particularly in the House — have been grilled about the president and ObamaCare repeal efforts during rancorous town hall meetings. 

Republicans struggled to rack up legislative victories during President Trump’s first 100 days in office despite having their first unified government in a decade. 

However, both McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have long said voters should judge them at the 200-day mark, pointing out that they are trying to pass complicated bills that call for sweeping reforms, such as on healthcare and taxes. That self-imposed deadline will hit at the end of the August recess. 

The White House and congressional Republicans initially wanted to have Trump sign an ObamaCare replacement bill into law last month, but that timeline was thrown off by intraparty bickering in the House.

Ryan recently told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that having the Senate pass its bill before the recess is a “doable timeline,” adding that “there’s a sense of urgency.”

Price made similar comments during a recent interview with Hewitt, saying that McConnell “is absolutely committed to getting a bill out of the Senate.”

Despite Price and Ryan’s public pressure to clear legislation before the summer break, McConnell has sidestepped being tied down.

“I don’t think we have forever to address this. But I’m not going to put a strict timeline on it,” he told Bloomberg in a recent interview. 

The Senate GOP leader has emphasized that Republicans need to fulfill their years-long campaign pledge to get rid of ObamaCare.

Passing a bill through the Senate by the end of July would also allow House and Senate negotiators to use the break to merge their separate replacement proposals. Though the Senate is using the House bill as a shell, it’s expected to gut the legislation as senators draft their own bill.

If Republicans aren’t able to pass legislation before the break, they could face a scheduling train wreck once they return to the nation’s capital. Lawmakers have a packed agenda during the second half of the year.

In addition to needing to pass a fiscal 2018 budget, which they want to use as a vehicle for tax reform, they need to clear an annual defense policy bill. 

They’re also expected to spend September trying to avert another government shutdown on Oct. 1, with the Trump administration signaling it is gearing up for a fight over controversial priorities, such as the president’s border wall proposal. Raising the nation’s debt ceiling will also be a top priority in the fall.

Hatch said Democrats could try to eat up valuable Senate floor time on other issues, such as nominations, in the coming months.

“It depends on how the Democrats handle it. So far, they’ve tried to stop everything,” he said.

The spotlight on the Senate intensified this week when the administration requested a 90-day delay on a legal decision over ObamaCare’s insurance subsidies, arguing it needs more time as lawmakers work on legislation. The request, if approved by the court, would set up another legal deadline in late August. 

It’s unlikely any Democrat will vote for an ObamaCare replacement bill, so the path to getting legislation through the Senate is narrow. 

Republicans have 52 seats and will need a bill that could win over at least 50 senators, including moderates such as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), without losing conservative members such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Both Thune and Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Republicans at some point are going to have to stop debating among themselves and vote on a bill.

Cornyn added that it would be “wonderful” to move legislation before the August recess, saying that “at some point we’re going to have to vote.” 

“Right now we’re having, I think, very productive conversations about what that product will look like. I think we need to have a reasonable period of time for that to occur, but at some point Sen. McConnell’s made it clear we’re going to vote,” he told The Hill. 

Thune echoed that sentiment, saying that “at some point we’re going to discuss this, and we’re going to make some decisions and we’re going to have to vote.” 

Tags John Cornyn John Thune Lisa Murkowski Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Rand Paul Ted Cruz

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