Meet the GOP senator quietly pushing an ObamaCare fix

Meet the GOP senator quietly pushing an ObamaCare fix
© Greg Nash

When Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMcConnell blocks House bill to reopen government for second time Senators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks GOP senators propose bill to pay 'excepted' workers during shutdown MORE (R-Tenn.) waded into a crowded hallway of reporters outside a closed-door GOP meeting last month and announced a bipartisan ObamaCare deal, Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Senators look for possible way to end shutdown GOP senators would support postponing State of the Union MORE (R-S.D.) was right at his side.

Rounds, a former insurance agent, had been quietly working with Alexander to forge a deal with Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate rejects government-wide ban on abortion funding 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 Bold, bipartisan action on child care will win plenty of friends MORE (Wash.) and other Democrats aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare markets.

Now he’s trying to sell the deal to skeptical colleagues who don’t want to be seen as propping up a law they revile.

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“We just kept track on cards who we'd talked to and who we hadn't talked to and whether they were interested in more information or they wanted copies of the bill as we proceeded to develop it,” Rounds told The Hill in an interview in his office, where a large Bison head and a whiteboard with the latest South Dakota grain prices greet visitors.

Rounds has taken the lead with Alexander in corralling Republicans, with Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingGOP senators challenge Trump on shutdown strategy Will Trump declare an emergency tonight? Only he knows for sure Senate in last-minute talks to find deal to avert shutdown  MORE (I-Maine) working with Murray on the Democratic side.

Of the two, Rounds doubtlessly has the tougher job. All Senate Democrats are expected to support the bill.

Shortly after the agreement was announced last month, President Trump in a tweet said he opposed “bailing out” insurance companies.

While Trump at other times has seemed to praise the effort, Rounds said the initial criticism stalled his effort to recruit Republicans.

Twelve Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, but Rounds said he and Alexander have paused their effort for now.

“Once the president announced that he wasn't ready to move forward much farther at this point with it then we stopped and we didn't start asking for more Republicans to join on until we resolve any issues the White House might have,” Rounds said.

“There is huge interest on the part of the Republican group to support this, but we have to wait until the president actually gives his approval because nobody's going to put their name on something if they don't think there's a chance of getting it through.”

Rounds continues to talk to other Republican senators about the bill, and talks with Alexander about the effort almost every day.

“Senator Rounds has been critical to it,” Alexander told The Hill. “And the reason he's been so helpful is because first, he was a governor and knows how to get a result. Second, he knows a lot about health insurance and cares about it.”

Rounds started selling insurance policies as an insurance agent in 1979.

Almost 25 years later, while serving as South Dakota’s governor, he oversaw state-level health insurance reforms in 2003 that included setting up a high-risk pool to insure especially sick people.

The background helped Rounds feel comfortable joining the discussion on the bill, which was led by Alexander and Murray, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.

Rounds, who is not a member of the committee, has also sought to tamp down turf battles with the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over many aspects of the legislation.

“A lot of this has to do with the Finance Committee and that creates some challenges for turf, and our thought was if that becomes an issue then perhaps Angus and I could take a more active role,” Rounds said.

Indeed, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchPhRMA CEO 'hopeful' Trump officials will back down on drug pricing move Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing Trump praises RNC chairwoman after she criticizes her uncle Mitt Romney MORE (R-Utah) has released a rival bill, which includes more conservative elements such as temporarily lifting ObamaCare’s individual mandate.

The Alexander-Murray bill funds for two years key ObamaCare payments that reimburse insurers for discounts to low-income people, in exchange for added flexibility for states to apply for waivers to change ObamaCare rules.

Trump, though, has argued that the payments, known as cost-sharing reductions, are a "bailout" to insurers.

Asked if other GOP senators brought up the same concerns, Rounds said, “Not until the president suggested it.”

“But once the president suggested that, that brought up some questions then and that's fine,” Rounds added. He said he is happy to have the White House make changes to address its concerns.

The measure is at a standstill. Democrats have declined to negotiate with the White House, saying they already reached a deal and GOP leaders should bring it up as it is.

The best chance for the bill could be as part of a larger government funding deal in December. Rounds said that “most certainly it could be” part of the deal, but that it is leadership’s decision to make.

Rounds stresses that ObamaCare still needs to be replaced, but pitches a two-step process, stabilizing the markets in the short term while a broader ObamaCare repeal and replacement bill is implemented.

Rounds says that he has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Overnight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' MORE (R-Ky.) about the Alexander-Murray bill.

“I think he's recognizing clearly that the need is there, recognizing that it takes two steps to get done, the repeal and replace,” Rounds said of McConnell.

Asked if it is accurate that McConnell recognizes the need for the Alexander-Murray bill, a McConnell spokesman referred to an interview the leader gave last month with CNN, where he said he would bring up the bill for a vote if Trump supported it.

“I don't think he'll bring this one up until he knows that it's ripe, that the president is ready to go so that if we pass it out of the Senate in one form, that it's going to be approved by the president and by the House,” Rounds said of McConnell. “Otherwise there's no reason for him to waste Senate time on the floor."

Alexander likewise said Republicans are waiting on a move from Trump.

“We've made our recommendation with an unusually large number of co-sponsors and we're waiting for President Trump to decide what he wants to do,” Alexander said. 

--This report was updated at 1:22 p.m.