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Senator says he nearly has the votes for ObamaCare repeal

Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyUtah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote Amazon blocks 10B listings in crackdown on counterfeits Cassidy on pipeline cyberattack: Congress must equip businesses with defenses against incursions MORE (R-La.) is predicting he will win enough votes to pass his last ditch ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill through the Senate, despite the long odds he seems to be facing.

“I am pretty confident we’ll get there on the Republican side,” Cassidy told a group of reporters in his office on Friday. “We’re probably at 48-49 [votes] and talking to two or three more.”

The problem for Senate Republicans when it comes to ObamaCare repeal has always been getting the final few votes to put them over the top. The repeal legislation that failed in July got 49 votes, but fell short because three GOP senators bucked leadership and voted no.

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There is an extremely short window to pass the bill before a procedural deadline of Sept. 30. Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Sherrod Brown calls Rand Paul 'kind of a lunatic' for not wearing mask Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna MORE (R-Ky.) on Friday announced his opposition, saying the bill kept too much of ObamaCare.

Cassidy said that if the bill does not pass by Sept. 30, he would try again in the future. 

But he pointed to a closed-door Senate GOP lunch on Thursday as a positive sign. He said after an informal discussion of the bill, Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerThis week: Congressional leaders to meet with Biden amid GOP reckoning Biden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Biden visits local Mexican restaurant to highlight relief program MORE (R-Miss.) asked to devote the lunch to discussing health care more deeply. 

“I told my wife when I got home last night that yesterday may have been my best day as a senator, and I’ve had some pretty good days,” Cassidy said. 

Cassidy said the high point of the discussion was when Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Nev.), who is co-sponsoring the measure and facing a tough reelection race next year, stood up.

“I’m running for reelection. People have told me to lay low on health care,” Heller said, according to Cassidy. “I said I’m not laying low. I wasn’t elected senator to lay low.” 

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The plan, which was put forward by Cassidy, Heller, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Overnight Health Care: WHO-backed Covax gets a boost from Moderna Vaccine hesitancy among lawmakers slows return to normalcy on Capitol Hill MORE (R-Wis.) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill There will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course McConnell safe in power, despite Trump's wrath MORE (R-S.C.), seeks to give more power to states. It ends ObamaCare funding for subsidies to help people afford coverage and funding for the Medicaid expansion, instead converting both pots of money into a block grant to states. 

GOP leadership, though, has not thrown its full weight behind the bill, which would mean diving back into the divisive ObamaCare debate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellManchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Romney: Removing Cheney from House leadership will cost GOP election votes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden reverses Trump limits on transgender protections MORE (R-Ky.) has told Cassidy and Graham that they need to find 51 votes on their own.

But Cassidy said that leadership is telling the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to prioritize its analysis of the measure, a crucial step before it can be considered on the floor.

“We’re told that CBO was told by our leadership to make this a priority above all other priorities,” Cassidy said. “Mitch has always said, ‘Show me you can get 50 votes.’ ” 

With 50 votes, Republicans could then rely on Vice President Pence to break the tie.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThere will be no new immigration law under Biden, unless he changes course Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber, said Thursday that he would do a whip count on the bill to determine its level of support.

The prospects of the bill passing have alarmed Democratic activists, who are now mobilizing against it.

Democrats argue the block grants in the bill would be too small and would lead to cuts in Medicaid and other health spending. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the measure would lead to a 17 percent cut in spending compared to ObamaCare in 2026. 

Cassidy, though, argues, that his measure simply equalizes spending by giving more money to many states that have not expanded Medicaid under ObamaCare and cutting back on some high-cost states that he argues are spending too much.

“Should the rest of the country sacrifice because they have costs that are so incredibly high?” Cassidy said, using Massachusetts as an example of a state he said spends too much.

Defending a new cap on overall Medicaid payments in the bill, Cassidy said that current spending on the program is “not sustainable.”

The bill would also allow states to apply for waivers to repeal ObamaCare regulations, including the prohibition against insurers charging sick people higher premiums.

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Cassidy, who has long promised to protect people with pre-existing conditions, said that the bill would still protect them because states would have to show they are providing “affordable and adequate” coverage in order to get a waiver.

He also said coverage losses that will likely be found by the CBO for his bill would be wrong. The office's analysis puts too much importance on the effect of repealing ObamaCare's mandate to have coverage, he said.

"I just don’t care about the coverage numbers because their methodology has been proven to be wrong," Cassidy said.  

Asked why he has kept plugging away on his bill, Cassidy cited the book “A Peace to End All Peace,” about the history of the Middle East and David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel.

“The author says David Ben-Gurion was of the type that said, ‘If you continue to do what is right, good things happen,'” Cassidy said. “So we figured we’d just keep plugging away and doing what’s right, and something good would happen.”