GOP leader tempers ObamaCare expectations

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback MORE (R-Ky.) is tempering expectations that the Senate will pass an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system, promising his colleagues a vote but not success.

McConnell in his public comments and private conversations about the ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill is painting a more sober picture than Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.), who in March guaranteed passage through the House.

McConnell is stopping well short of any grand pronouncement.

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He says he will bring a bill to the floor for a vote but is not making any promises whether he will get at least 50 members of the 52-member Senate Republican Conference to back it.

“Mitch has been very clear in our conference, and that is there will be a bill and we will be voting on it,” said Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces Trump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 Progressive strategist says changing demographics will help Dems MORE (R-Nev.).

But that’s as far as the GOP leader has been willing to go.

“He hasn’t gone beyond explaining that,” said Heller, who recently met with the special working group that is negotiating the healthcare bill.

McConnell warned in an interview with Reuters that passing healthcare reform will be tougher than tax reform, another of President Trump’s top priorities.

Expectations for repealing major parts of ObamaCare soared after the House passed its bill earlier this month, but McConnell cautions the votes in the Senate aren’t there yet.

What’s more, he’s not sure of the path to success.

“I don’t know how we get to 50 [votes] at the moment. But that’s the goal. And exactly what the composition of that [bill] is I’m not going to speculate about because it serves no purpose,” McConnell told Reuters on Wednesday.

Ryan sounded a much more bullish tone in March.

“We’ll have 218 when this thing comes to the floor,” Ryan declared, referring to the number needed to pass a bill through the House. “I can guarantee that.”

That prediction almost blew up in his face when House leaders were forced to pull the bill from floor consideration later that month because it did not have enough support.

The House bill squeaked through, however, with 217 votes on May 4 after conservatives negotiated a compromise with Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), a leader at the time of the centrist Tuesday Group.

McConnell’s interview with Reuters caught some Republican colleagues by surprise.

“I don’t know why he’s doing media on it, but he might be lowering expectations,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to speculate on the leader’s motivations.

Other lawmakers have long been skeptical of the chances of passing healthcare reform through the Senate.

One GOP senator told The Hill shortly before the House vote that healthcare legislation based on the House bill had only a 1 in 5 chance of passing the upper chamber.

Senate Republicans are using special budgetary rules to prevent a Democratic filibuster, meaning they need just 50 votes to pass healthcare legislation, with Vice President Pence breaking a tie. But that means McConnell can only lose two votes.

McConnell has to find a way to balance the concerns of moderates, who are worried about capping the federal contribution for expanded Medicaid enrollment and higher costs for older, low-income Americans, with those of conservatives, who are leery about creating a new health entitlement.

Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanOn The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-Ark.) said McConnell “is just being realistic.”

“We’ve had many, many meetings. It’s difficult,” he added.

The legislation that passed the House earlier this month cannot pass the Senate, Republicans in the upper chamber say.

Yet Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Texas governor, top lawmakers tell Trump not to use hurricane relief funds to build border wall The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test MORE (Texas) told reporters this past week that the Senate bill will overlap the House bill by as much as 70 or 80 percent.

That means the daunting task for McConnell is to find a way to replace 20 to 30 percent of the House bill in a way that will bring him 50 GOP votes.

A report released Wednesday by the Congressional Budget Office underscored a variety of problems moderates have with the bill.

It would leave 23 million more people uninsured by 2026 compared to ObamaCare and increase premiums for older, low-income Americans by as much as 850 percent.

“There does seem to be a consensus that the House bill could never pass the Senate and I’m certainly of that belief as well,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal MORE (R-Maine), who cited the CBO report’s finding that 23 million people would lose insurance under the House bill over the next decade.

In March, four moderate-leaning Republican senators warned McConnell in a letter that the House bill, which cuts nearly $900 billion in Medicaid funding, did “not include stability for Medicaid populations.”

Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators look for possible way to end shutdown GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (Ohio), Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Republican senators skeptical of using national emergency for wall funding MORE (W.Va.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal MORE (Colo.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Kaine to force Senate to hold rare Saturday session amid shutdown MORE (Alaska) signed the letter.

Portman said earlier this month that he would like to see “a longer runway” for reforming Medicaid instead of abruptly capping enrollment for the program in 2020.

Another sticking point with moderates is language defunding Planned Parenthood for a year, something to which Collins and Murkowski have both voiced objection.

If McConnell tries to woo moderates by boosting subsidies for older Americans or by softening Medicaid reforms, he risks losing the support of a trio of conservatives: Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal House Republicans call for moving State of the Union to Senate chamber GOP rep: 'Rand Paul is giving the president bad advice' on Afghanistan and Syria MORE (R-Ky.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGroup aiming to draft Beto O’Rourke unveils first 2020 video Howard Dean looking for a 'younger, newer' Democratic nominee in 2020 Congress can stop the war on science MORE (R-Texas) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Trump AG pick signals new scrutiny on tech giants | Wireless providers in new privacy storm | SEC brings charges in agency hack | Facebook to invest 0M in local news AG pick Barr wants closer scrutiny of Silicon Valley 'behemoths' Grassroots political participation is under attack in Utah and GOP is fighting back MORE (R-Utah).

Paul is philosophically opposed to establishing new taxpayer-funded subsidies to help people buy private insurance.

“There’s not been a louder voice up here for repealing ObamaCare. I really want to repeal it. I just don’t want to replace [it] with ObamaCare lite or another federal program,” he told Fox News recently.

Cruz has warned it would be “catastrophic” if Republicans fail to repeal ObamaCare.

He is holding back from criticizing the House bill while participating in negotiations on a Senate rewrite, but one of his big problems with the House legislation is that he felt it did not do enough to lower premiums.

He and other conservatives feel the best way to lower premiums would be to remove the mandate on insurance companies to provide coverage to older, sicker Americans — but that proposal is not popular with moderates.

“It’s a challenge anytime you’re trying to get a consensus on a complex issue when you have to get 50 of 52 votes,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMcConnell blocks House bill to reopen government for second time Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks GOP senators propose bill to pay 'excepted' workers during shutdown MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee.