GOP healthcare effort dogged by gender inequity

GOP healthcare effort dogged by gender inequity
© Greg Nash

Gender politics are roiling the start of the Senate Republican’s healthcare debate.

GOP leaders are playing defense over their decision to not include any women in a 13-member working group that is taking the lead in the healthcare talks.

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While their conference has rallied around them in arguing that the criticism is largely driven by the media, Republicans were peppered with questions Tuesday over the gender imbalance.

And that has offered an opening for Democrats, who want to paint the GOP as broadly out of touch with women.

It was easy to see that Republicans were frustrated over the debate on Tuesday.

“Everybody is at the table. Everybody,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOcasio-Cortez rips Trump in first House floor speech: 'It is not normal to shut down the government when we don’t get what we want' Overnight Health Care: Dem chair plans hearing on Medicare for all | Senate GOP talks drug prices with Trump health chief | PhRMA CEO hopeful Trump reverses course on controversial pricing proposal Supporters leave notes on plaque outside Ocasio-Cortez's office MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters, bristling at a question about the role of his female colleagues.

He said reporters “need to write about what’s actually happening,” stating that his conference was “having a discussion about the real issues.”

McConnell also downplayed the working group’s importance, arguing his entire conference will be involved in the debate.

“Nobody is being excluded based upon gender,” he said.

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 (R-Texas), pressed by a CNN reporter as he walked to a working group meeting, dismissed the controversy as “totally bogus because every single woman in our conference is involved.”

Democrats say they will make women’s health a top issue in the midterm elections.

“If you look at the House bill, it is so discriminatory against women,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCardi B expresses solidarity with federal workers not getting paid Government shutdown impasse is a leveraging crisis Overnight Health Care: Dem chair meets Trump health chief on drug prices | Trump officials sued over new Kentucky Medicaid work rules | Democrats vow to lift ban on federal funds for abortions MORE (N.Y.) declared at a press conference.

“To not have women in the smaller group that we know is making many of the real decisions is a very, very bad thing. They’re more than half the population.”

Democrats are likely to go on the attack against Republicans if they keep language in the House healthcare bill to defund Planned Parenthood over its abortion services.

Republican leaders appeared at first to have defused the situation somewhat by inviting Sen. 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 (R-W.Va.) to Tuesday’s meeting of the working group to discuss Medicaid. But GOP aides later clarified that she would not be a regular participant.

Capito told reporters that she plans to be actively involved in the debate, even if she is not included in meetings of the top negotiators.

“As a woman, I’m going to be participating very loudly,” she said.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter On 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 Senators look for possible way to end shutdown MORE (R-Maine), who has co-sponsored an alternative healthcare bill that would empower states to opt out of ObamaCare, said she would also play a role in the negotiations.

Collins noted that she spoke for nearly 15 minutes about Maine’s high-risk pool during the Republican lunch on Tuesday and asserted, “I’m not concerned about women’s voices not being heard.”

But Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators look for possible way to end shutdown Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight McConnell: Senate will not recess if government still shutdown MORE (R-Alaska) voiced some misgivings about the debate being led by an entirely male group.

She told a reporter for NBC News, “I just want to make sure we have some women on” the group.

The working group and its membership is in the spotlight because McConnell plans to use it to put together a bill that can win at least 51 votes.

Senators said Tuesday it appears that the Senate Finance and Health Committees will not hold hearings or markups on the healthcare legislation. Instead, it will be written behind closed doors and come straight to the Senate floor.

“I don’t think it’s going to go through the committees, at least from what I know about it,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is also a member of the working group.

Tuesday was the first full day of Senate session since the House GOP narrowly passed its healthcare reform bill, kicking the issue over to the Senate.

But thorny policy questions such as what to do about the expensive Medicaid expansion or how much to subsidize insurance coverage for low-income Americans took a back seat to scrutiny over the all-male working group, much to the frustration of GOP leaders.

GOP negotiators must hammer out agreements on several difficult policy questions that divide their party.

One of the toughest is what to do about ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, which has provided coverage for about 11 million people. Many Republican lawmakers want to end it, but a few from states that accepted the expansion are wary.

Republican senators from states that have expanded Medicaid have been meeting to discuss the issue. Sen. 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 (R-Ohio) said about eight of them met before a meeting of the Senate’s healthcare working group on Tuesday.

But if senators from states that have expanded Medicaid are split, it could diminish the ability of any lawmaker to try to preserve the program.

Conservatives are pushing to phase out the program as quickly as possible.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, has said he has spoken with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on a plan to phase out the Medicaid expansion, perhaps over a longer period than is called for in the House bill.

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.