McConnell steers Republicans away from ObamaCare fights

McConnell steers Republicans away from ObamaCare fights
© Greg Nash

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFlorida Democrat hits administration over small business loan rollout The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update Schumer says nation will 'definitely' need new coronavirus relief bill MORE has urged GOP colleagues in private to avoid distracting political fights, yielding a surprising ceasefire on labor and health issues, two of the bloodiest battlegrounds in Congress.   

For the first time in seven years, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed a bipartisan bill funding the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. It’s the largest spending bill after the one for the Defense Department and a perennial source of partisan strife.


The bill is not likely to go anywhere because the House has slim chance of passing a Labor-HHS spending bill, but the drama-free passage was an important victory for McConnell, who has staked the Senate Republican majority on the argument that Republicans know how to govern.

“We went eight years in the minority and during that time we didn’t pass these bills and then the public’s outraged,” said Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeCOVID-19 and the coming corruption pandemic GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has .5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements MORE (R-Okla.). “Behind the closed doors of the conference, he emphasizes over and over again that he wants to keep the extraneous things off and do what people expect us to do.”

The full Senate is now poised to act on the Labor HHS bill, which hasn’t passed the chamber as a stand-alone measure since 2007.

Democrats have claimed victory, arguing Republicans had given up on their strategy of using Congress’s power of the purse to battle President Obama.

“Leader McConnell finally realized that the way to pass a spending bill like this is to push the Tea Party aside, surrender on policy riders and give Democrats the opportunity to invest in programs they care about,” a Senate Democratic aide said. 

The Labor and Health and Human Services spending bill hasn’t come close to passing the Senate in recent years because it routinely became bogged down in fights over policy riders affecting ObamaCare and labor issues. 

In 2013, the government shut down for 16 days because Republicans — led by freshman Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves Florida sheriff asks for new leads in disappearance of Carole Baskin's former husband after Netflix's 'Tiger King' drops MORE (R-Texas) — insisted on language that would have blocked the implementation of ObamaCare.

The government almost shut down again in 2015 because of a fight over funding Planned Parenthood, the same health-related issue that came within hours of causing a shutdown in 2011.

McConnell has worked closely with Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranEspy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line Mike Espy announces Mississippi Senate bid MORE (R-Miss.) to keep riders from sinking spending bills before they get to the floor. 

“There’s a commitment between Leader McConnell and Chairman Cochran to move bills and get them to the floor. The leadership has been very helpful with floor time,” said a Senate GOP aide.

This year’s Labor-HHS bill does include a policy rider prohibiting the administration from using its appropriated funds to pay for ObamaCare’s risk corridor program, which reimburses insurances companies that suffer higher costs because of the healthcare law.

The bill also includes language that eliminates funding for the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was included in ObamaCare to reduce the growth of Medicare. Republicans argue the board, which has never been created, would be tantamount to healthcare “rationing.” 

But both of those policy riders were part of last year’s omnibus spending deal and don’t represent new battles.

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee declined to add riders to the bill that would have defunded or otherwise hobbled the healthcare law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act. 

The bill avoids add-ons to defund Planned Parenthood or reverse the new federal rules mandating overtime pay for salaried workers earning up to $47,476 per year. It also doesn’t take on new regulations that require retirement advisers to put their clients’ financial interests ahead of their own. 

It’s too early to know whether Senate Republicans under McConnell have given up entirely on using spending bills to legislate policy changes.

If Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWe need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Poll shows Biden with 6-point edge on Trump in Florida Does Joe Biden really want to be president? MORE is elected president in November, the practice may return with a vengeance.

McConnell’s wants to eschew paralyzing political fights because Republicans have to defend Senate seats in states President Obama won in 2008 and 2012. Appealing to moderate Democrats and independents could help endangered Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLobbying World On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump GOP fears Trump backlash in suburbs MORE (R-N.H.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRemembering Tom Coburn's quiet persistence Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries MORE (R-Wis.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator to donate 2 months of salary in coronavirus fight Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on MORE (R-Ohio) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' Why Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Ill.) win reelection. 

He may take a different approach ahead of 2018 mid-term election when the battlegrounds will be in red states and the electorate likely more conservative. 

The early winner from this year’s deal on labor and health spending may be Rep. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Five things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike MORE (R.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team who faces a tough reelection race in Missouri.

Blunt, the chairman of the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, teamed up with Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayTrump administration issues guidance scaling back paid leave requirement for small business employees Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday Senate Democrats propose canceling student loan payments during coronavirus MORE (Wash.), the ranking Democrat, to produce a bill without new controversial riders. He also worked with Murray last month to craft a compromise amendment allocated $1.1 billion in emergency funds to combat the Zika virus.

These deals will allow Blunt to make the case in his race against Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander that he has a record of getting things done in Washington.

The Labor-HHS bill eliminates 18 programs to help increase funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion. It also restores year-round Pell Grants to allow students to use federal aid for summer sessions. 

Blunt noted the legislation includes the riders Obama agreed to as part of last year’s omnibus deal.

“We just didn’t put any new riders in. It wasn’t easy but there’s real sense for how important it is for these debates to happen on the Senate floor rather than in committee,” Blunt said. “You don’t get to the Senate floor if you don’t have a bill that has some broad-based support to start with.”

He said McConnell has been instrumental to changing how the Senate handles spending bills.

“He has set that as an important standard,” Blunt added. “Chairman Cochran and Sen. McConnell, who’s on the committee, have made the point that we expressed a lot of policy issues last year, let’s get the bills to the floor and we can always have those debates on the floor.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.) has to date taken a different approach in the House, giving his members free rein to add various policy riders in committee. But that approach is proving unworkable.

The House leadership suffered an embarrassing setback last month when a bill funding energy and water programs failed. Many Republicans voted against it because it included a Democratic amendment barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  

But the main reason it failed is because Democrats voted against it en masse, citing policy riders affecting the environment and firearms regulations that were added at the committee level.

“House Republicans can’t help themselves from larding up bills with riders. The base text of the bill we saw on the floor had numerous anti-environmental riders and a gun rider that were veto bait,” said a House Democratic aide. 

House Republican leaders announced Wednesday they will now start restricting politically charged amendments on spending bills.