GOP senators: House agreeing to go to conference on ObamaCare repeal

Republican senators said after a closed-door lunch on Thursday that House GOP leadership has agreed to go to conference on legislation repealing ObamaCare.

"Mitch McConnell told our conference that he had spoken with Paul Ryan, and Paul Ryan intends to go to a conference," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added he has "been assured by the Speaker that they are preparing to go to conference."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office declined to discuss any talks between the Kentucky Republican and House Speaker Paul Ryan, referring questions to the Wisconsin Republican about any House plans.

The House could still take up and pass the Senate's legislation, with a spokeswoman for Ryan signaling no final decisions have been made.

"Conference Committee is one option under consideration and something we're taking steps to prepare for should we choose that route after first discussing with the members of our conference," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong. 

"We don't know what the Senate is going to do, so therefore we will reserve judgment as to what our response is until we find out what the Senate actually does," Ryan said at a press conference.

But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key moderate vote, told reporters separately after the Senate GOP lunch that "from what I understand there's been a commitment by the Speaker to go to conference."

When pressed on if GOP leadership told senators this during Thursday's closed-door lunch, she declined to say.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, referenced questions to McConnell and Ryan but said he believes any Senate healthcare bill is going to conference.

"I saw what [Rep.] Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said, that they view this as a vehicle to get to the conference, and I believe that the leader has been in conversations with Speaker Ryan on that topic. ... I have every expectation that we will [go to conference]," he said.

Pressed separately that the House could just pass the Senate's legislation instead, Cornyn added, "The moon could be made out of green cheese, too."

The move comes as GOP senators are under intense pressure by both leadership and the Trump administration to pass any healthcare bill, including a narrow repeal bill, just to keep the process moving.

Momentum appears to be gathering behind the so-called "skinny repeal" of ObamaCare, which is expected to include a defunding of Planned Parenthood for one year and a repeal of ObamaCare's individual and employer insurance mandates.

But GOP senators stressed after the closed-door meeting that they view any legislation that they pass as a vehicle to get them to a conference committee to the House, where they could work out a deal on repealing ObamaCare.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a key moderate vote, announced on Twitter that "I will support legislation to move this process to a House-Senate conference because I believe we need to repeal and replace Obamacare."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after the lunch that GOP senators wanted "assurances" that whatever the Senate passes will be used as "lifeline" to get both chambers to a conference on healthcare.

"I think people have some concerns voting for that unless they realize, and I think they do and I think they're going to want more assurances, that there is a pathway to conference," he told reporters.

Graham added he was going to call Ryan himself and confirm his commitment to going to conference, calling it a "trust but verify" situation.

He also wants to know if his healthcare proposal with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) could be brought up as part of a healthcare conference before he votes to support a "skinny repeal."

"The worst possible outcome is to pass something that most people believe is a placeholder and it becomes the final product," he said.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) office announced on Thursday afternoon that the House could stay in town to work on healthcare depending on what happens in the Senate.

"While last votes are currently scheduled to take place tomorrow, Members are advised that - pending Senate action on healthcare - the House schedule is subject to change. All Members should remain flexible in their travel plans over the next few days," the notice said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) threw some cold water on the conference committee idea.

"I'm not optimistic at all about a conference. That's not to say I would oppose going to conference, but I don't see how a conference could bring forward a product that 50 senators and 218 House members would support," he told reporters.

- Cristina Marcos, Nathaniel Weixel and Rachel Roubein contributed

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