Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever

Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats plan to force vulnerable Republicans to vote on legislation that would overturn a controversial Trump administration directive on ObamaCare.

The strategy shows Democrats will continue playing offense on ObamaCare, which for years was a political liability for the party. The 2010 law was by and large unpopular until the GOP nearly eradicated it during the last Congress.

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Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy MORE (D-N.Y.) this month will make targeted GOP incumbents such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (Maine), Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE (Colo.) and Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (Ariz.) take a tough vote.

“We want to debate health care,” he said. “We want to debate pre-existing conditions. We’re not saying our Republican friends are going to think exactly as we do, but let’s have a debate and vote,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. 

The focus on health care seeks to counter the Republican criticism that Democrats’ main goal is impeaching President TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE — and not a substantive legislative agenda.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done After police rip Trump for Jan. 6, McCarthy again blames Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-Ky.) said, “House Democrats are finally indulging in their impeachment obsession. Full steam ahead,” adding that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCapitol riot defendants have started a jail newsletter: report On The Money: Biden asks Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration | Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.) had “crumbled” to the “left-wing impeachment caucus.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinBiden backs effort to include immigration in budget package Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate MORE (Ill.) called the GOP impeachment arguments “baloney.”

“We have an agenda. Many of the elements have been considered and passed by the House. We have urged McConnell to at least let us debate them. He’s refused every single time,” he said.

In the 2018 cycle, Democrats were united on preserving ObamaCare, and touting the issue helped them win back the House. However, Democrats going into the 2020 election are divided on “Medicare for All” legislation, which has been ripped by Republicans and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News MORE, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Usually McConnell has an iron grip on the Senate agenda, but Schumer is taking advantage of a little-known law, the Congressional Review Act, which allows the minority party to seize the initiative to overturn an administrative rule as long as it’s done within a certain time period.

Schumer on Tuesday pointed out it’s “one of the rare instances where the minority can force a vote.”

He sees the Trump administration’s guidance issued in October 2018, which gives states more flexibility to approve health insurance plans that Democrats say fail to meet the “guardrails” of ObamaCare, as a ripe target to test GOP unity.

The Government Accountability Office has concluded the guidance has the force of a rule, making it eligible for termination under the Congressional Review Act.

The resolution to overturn Trump’s guidance on insurance plans must also pass the House and get the president’s signature to take effect.

Therefore, there’s little to no chance that Democrats succeed in stopping last year’s insurance regulation, though they hope at least to extract a political price from GOP incumbents facing reelection.

“Senate Republicans talk a good game about supporting pre-existing condition protections. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘Section 1332’ rule as written by the Trump Administration would circumvent those protections by allowing states to push junk health insurance plans that cost more and cover less,” Schumer’s office wrote in a memo to reporters last week.

Democrats also plan to use the Congressional Review Act this week to force a vote on a resolution to repeal Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which they say gives companies more leeway to pollute, and a resolution to repeal the IRS rule that prohibits state and local governments from reducing the tax liability of residents who saw their ability to deduct state and local taxes dramatically reduced under Trump’s 2017 tax bill.

But many Democrats see health care and protecting people with pre-existing conditions as one of their biggest advantages heading into 2020, and some in the party worry it’s getting lost in the uproar over impeachment.

“Just taking an impeachment break to let you know that they are still trying to cut Medicare and Medicaid and mental health while allowing polluters to ruin the planet. Ok, as you were,” Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzGyms, hotels, bus companies make last-ditch plea for aid On The Money: Stocks fall as COVID-19 fears rattle market | Schumer sets infrastructure showdown | Dems struggle to sell agenda The Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics MORE (D-Hawaii) tweeted earlier this month, opting for a tongue-in-cheek way to remind voters that Democrats haven’t forgotten about health care.

Schatz on Tuesday said his reminder “doesn’t mean I’m worried.”

“Against a backdrop of a corrupt president, we will talk about what we want to do to change things,” he said, adding, “We’re going to remain focused on health care.”

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal MORE (D-Mont.), when asked about impeachment consuming too much attention in Washington, said, “I think we need to keep working on everything.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure MORE (D-W.Va.) on Tuesday said pushing legislation to protect people with pre-existing conditions should be a top priority.

“Eight hundred thousand West Virginians have pre-existing conditions. It’s all about my state,” said Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by 42 points in 2016.

Manchin called the Trump administration’s guidance weakening protections for those constituents “devastating.”

Asked if Democrats have become too consumed with impeachment, Manchin responded, “We got to do our job and the president has to be the president. We all have to do our job. Letting people with pre-existing conditions go uninsured or unprotected is absolutely wrong. It’s immoral. It’s wrong.”

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Senate Republicans facing tough reelections next year have tried to insulate themselves from Democratic attacks by declaring support for protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

The Democratic sponsors of the resolution to overturn Trump’s regulatory guidance, which they say would water down protections for people with illnesses, say they want to put their GOP colleagues on the spot to see how they’ll vote.

“All of our Republican colleagues are on the record as being supportive of protections for people with pre-existing conditions. This will be the first way to indicate that support,” said Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDemocrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks On The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden MORE (D-Va.), who is circulating a petition to bring the resolution up for a vote.

Senate Republicans say Democrats are guilty of hypocrisy because some of them have supported states gaining waivers for insurance plans under ObamaCare’s Section 1332.

A GOP aide noted that Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D-Colo.), who is running for president, signed a letter with Gardner, as well as other Democratic members of the Colorado delegation, asking Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden rallies Senate Dems behind mammoth spending plan Mnuchin dodges CNBC questions on whether Trump lying over election Democrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer MORE and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to give Colorado’s application for an insurance waiver “fair and full consideration.”

“Colorado has struggled with some of the highest insurance rates in the nation,” the Colorado lawmakers wrote. “Our rural and mountain communities are particularly hard hit, and the bill was passed in hope we can offer those communities relief as quickly as possible,” referring to a bill passed in the state assembly to authorize Colorado’s Division of Insurance to establish a reinsurance program to address rising premiums.

Republican defenders of Trump’s guidance on insurance waivers argue it is intended to bring down the costs of health care plans.

But Democrats such as Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats release data showing increase in 'mega-IRA' accounts Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week MORE (Ore.), who helped write Section 1332 of ObamaCare, maintain that the provision was intended to give states more flexibility as long as they followed four guardrails.

States granted waivers from ObamaCare insurance requirements had to provide comprehensive health coverage, protect patients from excessive out-of-pocket costs and ensure the total number of people with health coverage didn’t drop. The plans also couldn’t add to the federal deficit.