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 McConnellOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request 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 CornynWillie Nelson on supporting O'Rourke: 'Anything he wants to do, I'm with Beto' Willie Nelson on supporting O'Rourke: 'Anything he wants to do, I'm with Beto' Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner 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 SchumerDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis 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 CapitoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up 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 CollinsOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission 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 MurkowskiHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Klobuchar, Murkowski introduce legislation to protect consumer health data 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 PortmanHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump 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.